Jerome Klinkowitz (essay date 1986)
SOURCE: "Writing Under Fire: Postmodern Fiction and the Vietnam War," in Postmodern Fiction: A Bio-Bibliographical Guide, edited by Larry McCaffery, Greenwood Press, 1986, pp. 79-92.
[An American educator and critic, Klinkowitz has written extensively on contemporary American fiction and edited Writing Under Fire: Stories of the Vietnam War (1978). In the essay below, he surveys novels published during American involvement in the Vietnam War and focuses his analysis on innovative approaches to plot and structure.]
American novels and stories about Vietnam reveal a common, desperate search for meaning—a search for any shred of authenticity in this experience—that may be traced back decades before "our" Vietnam War and that extends forward to the decade that has now passed since the American withdrawal from Vietnam. Although many important novels about Vietnam have recently appeared—Tim O'Brien's Going After Cacciato (1978), Robert Butler's The Alleys of Eden (1981), John Cassidy's A Station in the Delta (1979), Charles Durden's No Bugles, No Drums (1976), Winston Groom's Better Times Than These (1978), among others—this article focuses on the fiction published during our actual involvement there. But the central thesis of this article remains true for more recent works: Vietnam affected our literary imagination in ways that no other war has, and the result has been a body of fiction that relies on various innovative formal devices, similar to the experimental features that characterize other postmodern fiction, to capture a sense of that war's assault on language and on our sense of reality.
The first Western novelist to write about Vietnam was André Malraux, who as early as 1930 saw that the Indochina experience could be a metaphor for man's anguished alienation from an absurd society within a meaningless universe. Malraux's The Royal Way (1930) was the beginning of a line of books that followed the Western involvement in Vietnam from colonial exploitation to ideologically based warfare. By 1966 Norman Mailer could state [in Cannibals and Christians, 1966], "If World War II was like Catch-22, this war will be like Naked Lunch." Malraux's anguished alienation had become a full-blown nightmare, suggesting that this shard of the Asian continent was indeed bound up with the subconscious of Europe and America, and that to deal with it in art would take on the dimensions of a dark encounter with the more unpleasant aspects of our lives.
The processes of art inevitably tell us more about ourselves than the matter at hand. But the Indochina experience is especially self-revealing, and with Malraux's The Royal Way the measure of self begins. In the jungles of what we now call Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam, Malraux explores the roots of what two subsequent generations of novelists must face: "that fabulous aura of scandal, fantasy, and fiction which always hovers about the white man who has played a part in the affairs of independent Asiatic states." The jungle itself is a strange and exotic contrast to the civilizations of the West, a place where Malraux's protagonist finds that he was "growing aware of the essential oneness of the forest and had given up trying to distinguish living beings from their setting, life that moves from life that oozes." Even in 1930 Vietnam is a place where "some unknown power assimilated the trees with fungoid growths upon them, and quickened the restless movements of all the rudimentary creatures darting to and fro upon a soil like marsh-scum amid the steaming vegetation of a planet in the making." In such a place one asks, "Here what act of man had any meaning, what human will...
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but spent its staying power?"
The overt action in The Royal Way is colonial adventure. The soldier of fortune, Perken, would plunder the land of its treasures and organize a military force to become its political ruler as well. But as in every subsequent Vietnam fiction there is a deeper current turning back upon the characters. As Perken explains his motives to his skeptical assistant Claude:
"And then—only try to grasp all that this country really is. Why, I'm only just beginning to understand their erotic rites, the process of assimilation by which a man comes to identify himself, even in his sensations, with the woman he possesses—till he imagines he is she, yet without ceasing to be himself! There's nothing in the world to match it—sensual pleasure strained to the point where it becomes intolerable, the breaking-point of pain! No, for me these women aren't merely bodies; they're … instruments. And I want …" Claude guessed his unseen gesture, the gesture of a hand crushing out life. "… as I once wanted to conquer men."
What he's really after, Claude mused, is self-annihilation. I wonder is he more aware of it than he admits. Anyhow he'll achieve it easily enough.
Perken's immediate quest fails. He cannot take his plunder out of Vietnam, and his private army is decisively beaten. But his greatest defeat is just as Claude supposed:
Frenzied with self-centered passion, her body was withdrawing itself from him irrevocably. Never, never would he apprehend, never share, this woman's sensations; never could the frenzy which thrilled her body be for him anything but a proof of the unbridgeable gulf between them. Without love there can be no passion. Carried away by forces he could not control, unable even to make her realize his presence by tearing himself away from her, he too closed his eyes, thrown back upon himself as on a noxious drug, drunk with a wild desire violently to crush out of existence this stranger's face that urged him on to death.
It would be 35 years before American fiction came to grips so closely with these dark matters of the self. Westerners in this novel took their first steps into an experience destined to constrain and diminish their imperial selves, but the challenge was irresistible.
Two dozen novels about the war were published during America's active involvement in it. In 1965, Robin Moore first introduced the war to a literary audience with The Green Berets, which concluded: "What the outcome in Vietnam will be is anybody's guess, but whatever happens, Special Forces men will continue to fight Communism and make friends for America in the underdeveloped nations that are the targets of Communist expansion." The war did not turn out that way, and neither did our country's appreciation of it. Coming to a final understanding, and expressing it in art, has become an ongoing effort as arduous as any trial described in the existential novels of Kafka, Sartre, or Malraux. From a European perspective it would have been nothing new. But in Vietnam, America lost its innocence and by that process grew immeasurably in its art.
Some historians date the beginning of American involvement in Vietnam from 1954, with Vice-President Richard M. Nixon's advocacy of intervention at Dien Bien Phu against Eisenhower's wish to remain neutral. Graham Greene's Vietnam novel of 1955, The Quiet American, witnesses the awesomely quiet birth of American interest in this country recently deserted by the French. The narrator is a British journalist, seasoned by events in his personal life as well as by his nation's experience, before whom the quiet American Agency for International Development (AID) official, Pyle, is the epitome of collective innocence: "He was absorbed already in the dilemmas of democracy and the responsibilities of the West; he was determined—I learned that very soon—to do good, not to any individual person, but to a country, a continent, a world. Well, he was in his element now, with the whole universe to improve." This innocence, of course, is Pyle's downfall. As the journalist tells him, "I wish sometimes you had a few bad motives; you might understand a little more about human beings. And that applies to your country too, Pyle." Innocence, we learn, "is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm." The young, well-intentioned man with a crew cut and a black dog at his heels is as out of date as an Errol Flynn movie where the hero "rescued a girl and killed his enemy and led a charmed life. It was what they call a film for boys, but the sight of Oedipus emerging with his bleeding eye-balls from the palace at Thebes would surely give a better training for life today." Vietnam was already gaining a reputation as "an experience," and Americans were from the first cast as hapless (if dangerous) innocents.
Greene's novel portrays the personal and national havoc created by Pyle's "involvement," the consequences of which are a vivid preview of what was to happen from 1962 to Christmas week of 1972. During these same years The Quiet American went through 17 printings in the United States; but few Americans came forward to write a Vietnam novel with such a measured and controlled view. The first attempt was Robin Moore's The Green Berets. Its tone was set by the dust-jacket advertisement, boasting that Moore "was paid the 'supreme compliment' of being sent along as the second Special Forces 'sergeant' on all-Vietnamese or Montagnard patrols. On one such patrol Moore so distinguished himself that the Montagnard commander offered him the rare privilege of cutting off the ear of a dead VC!"
In the years since 1965 Robin Moore has remained an apologist for the war in Vietnam. David Halberstam is not. A journalist in Vietnam the same time as Moore, Halberstam incurred Administration disapproval for his Saigon dispatches, which Graham Greene characterized as not taking at all "the conventional line about the American presence in Vietnam." In 1967 Halberstam wrote One Very Hot Day, a novel that follows an American advisor through a day's patrol—the same role Moore took for his own book, but with very different results. Halberstam's Captain Beaupré is the first American literary character to face Malraux's jungle, the first to sense that "the heat was the enemy of all white men, but it was more an enemy of his, he had less resistance and resilience." It is 1963; he is only a military advisor; and there is a strict limit to his tour of duty, so the magnitude of Malraux's primeval landscape need be nothing more than "his imagination turning Vietnam into 365 days of this." But the artificial limits on time and on his military role are distressing. "He wished the troops would go faster, would move it out, and he wished he were a real officer, someone who could give commands and then see them obeyed, who could send a patrol here and another there, could make the troops go fast, go slow, be brave, be strong; wished to be hated, to be feared, even to be loved, but to be an officer and in charge." His experience is perplexing, because Vietnam is a different kind of war for him. A veteran of World War II and Korea, the sergeant can instruct his young lieutenant (a scene that is to reappear in several Vietnam fictions) in just how strange things are compared to the war against Hitler:
We didn't know how simple it was, and how good we had it. Sure we walked but in a straight line. Boom, Normandy beaches, and then you set off for Paris and Berlin. Just like that. No retracing, no goddam circles, just straight ahead. All you needed was a compass and good sense. But here you walk in a goddam circle, and then you go home, and then you go out the next day and wade through a circle, and then you go home and the next day you go out and reverse the circle you did the day before, erasing it. Every day the circles get bigger and emptier. Walk them one day, erase them the next. In France you always knew where you were, how far you had walked, and how far you had to go. But this goddam place, Christ, if I knew how far I had walked, it would break my heart. From Normandy to Berlin and back, probably.
Halberstam's novel also begins the search for structure common to most subsequent Vietnam novels: how to organize this war that defies all previous military and political patterns. The novelist starts with basics, a single day's patrol, but on it his veteran sergeant loses all sense of purpose and achievement. Even in the simplest of conventional terms, the experience of Vietnam makes little sense.
Whether experienced by journalists on Guggenheims or by literate infantrymen on patrol, Vietnam proved to be a war unlike any other. Tom Mayer, a representative of the first group, writes about such difficulties in his collection of stories, The Weary Falcon (1971), which includes the situation of "the US Marines landing at Chu Lai where the troops came storming out of the amtracks and up the beach like John Wayne in 'The Sands of Iwo Jima' only to find twenty photographers on the top of the first dune taking pictures of it all." In similar terms William Pelfrey's The Big V (1972) fails as a realist combat novel, because the war, measured first against its familiar image on television, never has the chance to escape the tired pop-art cliches assigned to every act. "I fired one round on semiautomatic. His body jerked erect, almost like a gangster blown back by a sawed-off shotgun, only screaming, hoarse, with his mouth gaping; more like an Indian, his arms flying up and dropping the rifle." Pelfrey's narrator can find no vocabulary for the war beyond that of its television images because his vision extends no further than the video-adventures of his youth. That Vietnam was fought on such a level is less frightening than the thought that it was so comprehended, by soldiers and citizens alike.
Outstripping the politics and military theories of earlier wars and older generations, the truth of Vietnam became a test of the artist's imagination. Hence, three of the best books about the war were written by authors who were never there as participants, and who remove the action of their books to points of broader perspective. In The Prisoners of Quai Dong (1967) Victor Kolpacoff suggests the sense of Vietnam by writing about a military jail, where the order of life has all the tedium, uncertainty, and senselessness of the war going on outside—particularly when the narrator is asked to participate in the interrogation/torture of a Viet Cong suspect. William Eastlake's The Bamboo Bed (1969) finds an even more appropriate perspective on this surreal war—above the jungle combat, above even the monsoon engulfing that action, in a rescue helicopter used for in flight trysts by a modern Captain Tarzan and Nurse Jane. The ship is more noted for the people it has not rescued, including an infantry company directed by its captain into a ritualistic re-creation of Custer's Last Stand, with the Viet Cong as obliging Indians. Asa Baber sets his The Land of a Million Elephants (1970) in a place of make-believe not unlike Vietnam in its geography, and quite like Vietnam in its role in our international fantasies. Baber's strategists submit that America has been deadened by civil unrest and political assassination: "I submit that if you had a National Blood Pressure Monitor at the moment people heard the news you would have found virtually no response. No orgasm."
Baber's depiction of the lack of imaginative possibilities in Vietnam may be closest to the truth of what the war really meant. But within the limits of actual events, it remained the role of fictionists to find a structure. Ronald J. Glasser's 365 Days (1971) admitted the problem: "There is no novel in Nam, there is not enough for a plot, nor is there really any character development. If you survive 365 days without getting killed or wounded you simply go home and take up again where you left off." Yet within this artificially imposed structure of a duty tour Glasser sketches many aspects of the war: the suicidal role of helicopter pilots, the medics' psychotic altruism, and the case of a veteran commander who against the military silliness of Vietnam applies World War II tactics with great success until he is fragged by his most decidedly Vietnam-era troops. Airmen's routines—bombing Vietnam on office-hour schedules, from comfortable bases in Thailand while intimately involved in affairs back home in Washington, D.C., or Schenectady, New York—are used by George Davis as the structure for Coming Home (1971). In counterpoint, Davis places the problems of a black officer, unique even in the Vietnam-era Air Force, for whom "this war is like Harvard. Nothing in it seems real. Everything is abstract. Everything is an argument or a question."
In terms of structure, the most successful novel to portray the military situation in Vietnam is Josiah Bunting's The Lionheads (1972). A major and former commander in Vietnam teaching history at West Point, Bunting finds the essence of the Vietnam insanity simply by viewing it through the traditional form of Army chain-of-command. His novel begins at the top, where a major general knows that
commanding a Division in the combat theatre can be the capstone of an excellent career of service, leading to one further assignment … or, if he truly distinguishes himself, the assignment will lead to another promotion—the big step to three stars (only 15 percent of two-star generals are promoted to the three star rank)…. He wants to be Chief of Staff—of the Army.
With the visit of a branch secretary imminent, the general mounts a campaign, the implications of which are carried down-staff with the orders. At brigade, he charges one of his colonels in the manner of a sales director: "Your body-count is a standing joke. Tell you what, Robertson, you have one week to produce." Among the three brigades, there is a scramble for the division's helicopter assets; inevitably, one brigade is shorted and sustains a frightening number of deaths, but overall the casualties are "moderate" enough for the general to claim a significant victory. As the battle has progressed from planning to execution, Bunting has followed the action down to company, platoon, and squad, until he reaches what the Army calls the "real sharp individual"—the soldier in the field, in this case PFC Compella, the single person in the book devoid of all but purely human ambitions. In the first chapter, at division, he has been temporarily assigned as an aide, displaying maps for the coming battle. "PFC Compella notes that the officers take no notice of him, but follow only the movements of the tip of his pointer as it plots the new locations on the briefing map." His presence is as unreal as the deaths orchestrated by these same commanders. At the novel's conclusion, when he himself is the fine point of the war's action, the officers again take no note, for he is killed on a day for rejoicing, when casualties are light. His experience in Vietnam is absolute but unmeasurable.
But the Vietnam experience was bewildering even to the military. To Army veterans, the war made little sense. Confused sergeants, whose 20 years of service span the end of World War II, Korea, and the beginnings of Vietnam, are familiar characters in fiction emerging from the war—and in few cases do they find a solution, or even an understanding of what is going on. The larger dimensions of America's involvement remain the province of the professional novelist. Two young novelists wrote their first books about the war, James Park Sloan with War Games (1971) and William Crawford Woods with The Killing Zone (1970). Both have since broadened their writing careers, but these first novels are two of the best to come out of the Vietnam War.
For War Games Sloan faces the familiar problem of finding a structuring device. This is why his protagonist has joined the Army—he has two theories to test, one of which he hopes to use for a novel:
The timid hero goes to Vietnam like a sissy dipping his toe in the pool. Suddenly he realizes that he can be a cold-water swimmer. This happens because Vietnam provides him with a character-molding experience. It is both purposeful and earthshaking. There is a flash of insight. He realizes that he is now fully mature. He has become a soldier and a man.
This is only a hypothesis. Then there is Theory Two.
A tough-minded young man, who unsuspectingly has above-average sensitivity goes to Vietnam. For the first time in his life he encounters genuine brutality and tragedy—perhaps his first tragic love affair. The experience shocks him into his own humanity. There is a flash of insight. He comes home in total revulsion at war and probably writes a book.
This story of his book becomes the story of his attempts to write the definitive novel of Vietnam, and its structure becomes natural and unique to the young college dropout ripping off the Army in Vietnam. Discovering that if the service does dental work on any tooth it is responsible for the care of that tooth, and the two adjacent, for the rest of the soldier's life, Sloan's protagonist begins a program of systematically complaining about every third tooth. The organization of his dental chart becomes the structure of his novel.
The chart is the most real thing in the book. Like other writers before him, Sloan finds that there are many unreal things in this new war: airliners that race the sun across the Pacific, serving breakfast every hour; APO mail that sends the same letter back and forth across the world 27 times; a peacetime army staffed by uniformed civil servants who must suddenly fight for their careers; and dozens of other incongruities that suggest that Vietnam and its war are a world apart from anything America has previously known. Officially, the Army contrives its own unreality to match. It is a nonlinear war, with no objectives to seize or end-date in sight:
Each departure is festive in its own way…. Since the rotations after one-year tours are staggered, victory is a continuous process. It is thus more sustained than the sword tendering, paper signing, and ticker-tape marching of previous wars. On the other hand, it is followed by an equally continuous reappraisal.
The service treats it as a game, a matter of duration and a simple modal exercise:
We lead by a steady three-to-one. Which is good, but not good enough. Any worse and there would be alarm. Any better and the statistics would be checked…. I never bother with the facts. When a town comes up on my roster, I put the monthly battle there. That's the way it is with this war.
Sloan's protagonist learns that if he is to have a real war, he must make it up himself. "I shall remember to cite Hamlet: devise the play, then act in it!" As he makes progress through his war, which has become his novel, he wonders, "Have I begun inventing things? A man who goes to war should return with tales to tell…. Is my life merging with my imagination?" He fears that he is "tramping, step by step, in the direction of the implausible." On patrol with a group of ARVN rangers, his dream catches up with him: sickened by his allies' torture of villagers and disgusting acts with animals, he sets his rifle on automatic fire and destroys them all. For this he expects court-martial and execution, but at least he has performed a significant act in this otherwise insignificant war.
The writer and his "separate war" are saved by his new boss, Colonel Rachow, who has authored the Army manual Creative Leadership and Collective Tunnel Vision, and who in other times "would have been magnificent … as a paper lawyer in the twelfth century. Or perhaps as the head of a noble family encroaching on its vassals." Rachow sympathizes with the protagonist's behavior because he can articulate many of the young soldier's feelings about the unreal war against Vietnam:
War, said Rachow, has ceased to be tied down by facts. It has become metaphysical; one might say a platonic form. He asked me to picture an amphibious landing across Lake Michigan. Then imagine, he said, such things as landings by Martians; invaders from liquid planets formed of molten lava, surprised and threatened by our exploration. This is the future of military planning. War is no longer waged merely to achieve ends; it is waged as proof of its own possibility.
Moreover, technologically "war had come to a state of entropy! It was more and more complex, but in the process its energy was spent. If he had known sooner, he might have quit the army and written a book—on the war which had made his profession obsolete." And so Sloan's protagonist ends his tour with the creation of his small novel about a small war, War Games.
In The Killing Zone William Crawford Woods employs even more artifice to come to terms with this most artificial of wars. A confused sergeant stands at the center of the action, which Woods places not in Vietnam but rather in a New Jersey training camp where the strategies of Vietnam are first rehearsed. Sergeant Melton has rejected a career that would have led him to Josiah Bunting's managerial officer caste of Vietnam. Instead, he finds himself first sergeant of a company with no executive officer, its C.O. having been stricken with a heart attack on the golf course; and so he is in a position of command when a new lieutenant arrives to test a demonstration plan of computerized warfare—a plan being implemented in the Vietnam War for which the inductees are training. The war and its methods, of course, are like no other. The lieutenant helping to plan it is equally new:
Twenty-four years old. BS and MS in electrical engineering from the University of California. Master's thesis on some military application of information retrieval. ROTC commission deferred until after graduate school. Part-time programmer for Armed Resources Corporation—one of those ambiguous concerns that hide in the rolling countryside of Maryland and Virginia within fifteen minutes by chopper of the Pentagon.
Lieutenant Track's experiment is to find out how closely and how well a computer can perform with a small line unit in a rapidly changing combat situation. The unit chosen is led by Sergeant Cox, who is of Track's age but in spirit is more akin to Melton's Army. Despite the strange nature of the war and the even more incongruous circumstances in which one trains for it ("the training area … was a parking lot; they were learning to kill like cavemen in a place where the pizza truck would stop that night,"), he resists computerized warfare in favor of the personal virtues of soldiery.
Track's computer plans an action, issues plastic-headed wargame ammunition, and follows the training exercise with all the deliberation of a division commander, receiving information from the field and determining the best strategies to continue. But an error is made: the operator has not routinely cleared the computer's storage, and as a result two boxes of live ammunition have been used. There is no way the computer can discover or correct its action. That remains the prerogative of the common foot soldier, in this case Sergeant Cox, who has but one way to save his men from total slaughter:
He had been hit four times by the gunner who was still firing when he reached him. Mr. Track's computer had provided an unbeatable realism which had gone into his belly, and one bit of realism had ruined his left arm, taken it out altogether. So it was with the rifle in one hand that he came over the barrel, calmly, indifferently, almost sweetly, and with practiced smoothness and precision slid the bayonet into the boy's chest…. The sergeant and the private fell together behind the finally silent gun.
Because he has attacked the technology itself, Sergeant Cox can affirm both himself and the real matter of death, each of which the military technicians of the Vietnam War try to efface. The Killing Zone probably stands as the best novel to define, amid the surreal confusion of a war planned by computers and practiced in parking lots, what field remains for honor. The villains are those who disavow such honor, whether they be technocrat lieutenants who fight weekday wars with weekends in New York, or a military establishment that has lost sight of the purpose of soldiering. Again, the sergeants, both young and old, suffer. But in Woods' novel their acts have meaning and their minds comprehend the meaning of what's going on. The lieutenant can drive away in his red Corvette, radio blaring; the first sergeant remains, to write letters of bereavement but also to understand:
Melton paused, because the melody from Track's radio was surfacing in his mind, and he wanted to name it. It mingled with the others, then came clearer. Rock and roll, or what they now called just rock, the new music—he hated most of it—but he had heard before, and liked, this quiet tune—there it was: "Ruby Tuesday," by the Rolling Stones. A really beautiful song.
The fact that amateur and professional writers of all ages and abilities wrote on every aspect of the war in a wide range of styles and modes demonstrates that writing, that telling stories, is an essential reflex to the human dilemma. More specifically, these works of fiction argue that literature is a person's private weapon against lies and hypocrisy, that a precise and concrete use of language is a moral act. The Vietnam conflict made less of an immediate impression on domestic America than any other war in history; there was no mobilization of the homefront, and America was, simultaneously, going through one of the most culturally fertile periods in recent times. In his book Standard Operating Procedure: Notes of a Draft-Age American (1971), James S. Kunen ponders what he will be able to tell his future grandchildren:
They won't understand why the war did not become the center of our lives, why stopping it did not pre-empt all other concerns, why opposition did not progress far beyond dissent. They won't understand how it was possible that, while the war was going on, a new football league grew and merged with the old, hemlines rose and fell amid great controversy, and the nation rediscovered romance.
The task of making such explanations ultimately falls on literary artists. The peculiar nature of Vietnam, both at home and abroad, has made that task all the more difficult. But long after the politics, economics, military theories, and sociologies of the war have been outdated, the fictions of those artists will remain as evidence of how the war affected our imagination. And for all its struggles, their writing is perhaps our most reliable record of just what Vietnam was.
Walter Hölbling (essay date 1989)
SOURCE: "Literary Sense-Making: American Vietnam Fiction," in Vietnam Images: War and Representation, edited by Jeffrey Walsh and James Aulich, The Macmillan Press, Ltd., 1989, pp. 123-40.
[Hölbling is the author of The Discourse of War in Recent American Novels (1987). In the following essay, he discusses the different types of literary responses the Vietnam war has engendered and relates them to American cultural myths and previous war literature.]
Since 1941 the United States has been more-or-less continuously involved in a series of military conflicts around the world. The resulting public awareness of war has contributed to the production of an ever-growing number of fictional accounts that deal with war or war-like situations. One of the assumptions of this essay is that stories of war display essential cultural concepts, expectations and self-images more prominently than other kinds of fiction, as the extreme situation of war provides occasions for scrutinising and putting into words the individual and collective values in whose name the state demands that its citizens risk their lives for the common good. Thus, novels of war can be considered as fictional models of a nation's (or people's) 'storifying of experience', as acts of literary sense-making (or questioning) in response to historical problems of national importance. The literary conventions employed by these texts in their attempt to understand a specific historical situation reveal specific cultural idiosyncrasies in plot patterns, motifs, symbol systems, and so on. If they have sufficient explanatory power, these models of literary sense-making persist as persuasive conventions, even in the face of political and historical change.
Michael Herr says in Dispatches that 'war stories, after all, are stories about people'—stories, that is, like other stories, but about people in an extreme situation that is still (thank God) considered the exception rather than the rule. In this exceptional situation of war the state demands that its citizens (usually the younger ones) risk their lives for the common good—something that goes beyond the usual requirements for proving yourself a valuable member of the community. Such situations are traditionally an occasion for questioning the validity of those individual and collective values and self-concepts in whose name one might die prematurely, and the whole matter is complicated by the perceptions of the enemy, which ignorance makes all the more alien and terrifying.
The Vietnam conflict is exceptional in at least three respects: (1) no war since the Civil War caused such a rift in American public opinion and led to such a massive and heated public debate for and against; (2) it was the first war the United States conclusively lost; and (3) never before did Americans think they knew so much about their military opponents, only to discover that they knew very little. Even if Frances Fitzgerald's critical stance in Fire in the Lake does appear somewhat harsh at times, many of her comments are born out by the language, concepts and general attitudes evident in the majority of fictions about the war. Denise Levertov's poem 'What Were They Like?' succinctly catches the inadequacy of the rather vague ideas Americans held about the country in which—and supposedly for which—they were fighting.
The outcome of this conflict has had far-reaching effects on US domestic, foreign and military policy, and the nation's self-image still seems to be in the process of recomposing itself from a broad spectrum of critical as well as revisionist public opinions. Just remember the kaleidoscope of articles, commentaries and speeches in 1985, on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the fall of Saigon. In short, the overall impact of the Vietnam conflict on the United States not only justifies but demands that students of American Studies familiarise themselves with the fictional models responding to this unique historical experience.
Ideological positions are obviously important in this kind of fiction, as there were two camps—and little in between—from the beginning. Though there is not much in the way of explicit ideological argument in most of the novels, with the notable exception of John Briley's The Traitors (1967), it certainly makes some difference whether you focus your analyses around novels in the vein of The Green Berets or of Bamboo Bed or of Close Quarters or of The 13th Valley. To put into perspective the achievements of American fiction on Vietnam, it is necessary to have some knowledge not only of the political and sociocultural background but also—maybe even more so—of the literary conventions of American war fiction as they developed up to the Second World War. What Paul Fussell, in an essay on First World War British literature, called 'cultural paradigms', determine the fictional design, as does the familiar habit of conceiving of a new war in terms of the previous one. [In an endnote, Hölbling adds: 'Fussell defines "cultural paradigms" as "systems of convention and expectation that largely determine which objective phenomena become part of the individual's experience—what people 'make of things', how they fit their experience into the conceptual frames their culture has taught them to consider suitable for making sense of the world".'] In relation to Vietnam, Second World War models soon turned out to be inadequate, though this did not prevent a sizable group of authors from using them. Even so-called experimental fictions such as Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse-Five were not easily assimilable to the new experience, as is shown by the ambitious failure of Eastlake's Bamboo Bed. The peculiar combination of massive high-tech destruction and guerrilla warfare in an exotic environment, along with the one-year rotation system and the increasingly doubtful political and moral premises of the involvement, made general public consent, as in the Second World War, impossible.
Here, perhaps, is the place to digress a little from the immediate topic and to focus on some of the 'cultural paradigms' developed in earlier American war narratives—particularly as the specific conditions of Vietnam stimulated American authors to look to the past for adequate fictional models. They turned to central American myths and self-concepts, originally embodied in the religiously motivated Indian-war narratives of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, then secularised in the pioneer stories of Western fiction, and nowadays happily and profitably thriving in the comic-strip and formula-story section of popular literature. To understand the appeal of such models we have to go back to the original narratives and the way they responded to the 'American experience'. In the words of Richard Slotkin, [in Regeneration through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600–1830, 1973], 'The Indian wars proved to be the most acceptable metaphor for the American experience. To all of the complexities of that experience, it offered simplicity of dramatic contrast and direct confrontation of opposites.' Slotkin considers the Indian narratives 'the first coherent myth-literature developed in America for American audiences' and argues that in the hands of eloquent preachers such as Increase Mather it became 'a primary vehicle for the American Puritan's mythology'. Of the several components of this myth, the most important from our point of view are the sense of mission, the conviction of being engaged in a just war in a unique historical situation, and racial warfare.
The early settlers' sense of mission made partners of Bible and sword, as is shown by the following passage from John Underhill's Newes from America (1638):
Many were burnt in the fort, both men, women, and children. Others forced out … which our soldiers received and entertained with the sword. Down fell men, women, and children…. Great and doleful was the bloudy sight to the view of young soldiers that never had been in war, to see so many souls lie gasping on the ground, so thick, in some places, that you could hardly pass along…. Sometimes the Scripture declareth women and children must perish with their parents. Sometime the case alters; but we will not dispute it now. We had sufficient light from the word of God for our proceedings.
By the end of the eighteenth century, the struggle for souls had largely given way to the struggle for soil in the name of democracy and civilisation. This 'errand into the wilderness' retained from the earlier struggle the elements of racial warfare and the sense of the unique historical occasion, soon to become known as 'manifest destiny'. Underpinned by the symbol system of 'cultivating the wilderness' or 'the progress of civilisation', it justified the use of collective violence, as well as heroic individual actions by outstanding figures such as Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett and Kit Carson, in the gradual destruction of the aboriginal culture.
It is interesting to note that, just as official US histories never refer to the 300 or so years of war with the Indians as war (unless other nations were involved), so the engagement in Vietnam remained to the end a 'conflict', as a state of war was never officially declared. One could thus state, somewhat facetiously, that the two longest military engagements in US history—the Indian wars and the war in Vietnam—were, until recently, never acknowledged as what they in fact were, and one might be tempted to take a rather critical view of the myth of the Pax Americana, rather as Edmund Wilson does in his book Patriotic Gore (1962). Recent American historical writings such as Russell Weigley's The American Way of War (1977) and David Kennedy's Over Here (1980), a study of the sociocultural context of the First World War, present a more realistic appraisal of the American past.
The literary legacy of the First World War was rich and proved adaptable to the experience of the next generation of authors, who, sooner than expected after the 'war to end all wars', were having one of their own. As Malcolm Cowley remarks [in The Literary Situation, 1958], somewhat tongue-in-cheek,
One might say that a great many novels of the Second World War are based on Dos Passos for structure, since they have collective heroes in the Dos Passos fashion, and since he invented a series of structural devices for dealing with such heroes in unified works of fiction. At the same time, they are based on Scott Fitzgerald for mood, on Steinbeck for humor, and on Hemingway for action and dialogue.
Given the broad national consensus, in the Second World War, that war against the Nazis and Fascists in Europe and the Japanese imperialists in the Pacific was justified on political and moral grounds, it must be considered a sign of the intellectual honesty of those concerned that the fiction about this war voiced any criticisms at all. The general climate of the Cold War years was not very conducive to critical voices or texts, yet authors such as Norman Mailer and J. H. Burns, and, in a different vein, Irwin Shaw, Stefan Heym, Alfred Hays and John Hersey, are among those who, while supporting the war goals, point out the potentially dangerous effects on the victors. Not unexpectedly, they remain—like their predecessors after the First World War—an influential minority. Most American novels about the Second World War are conventional war stories imbued with the myths summarised by Ward Just in his book Military Men:
Since American wars are never undertaken for imperialist gain (myth one), American soldiers always fight in a virtuous cause (myth two) for a just and goalless peace (myth three)…. American wars are always defensive wars, undertaken slowly and reluctantly, the country a righteous giant finally goaded beyond endurance by foreign adventurers.
To conclude this brief synopsis of 'cultural paradigms' and literary conventions, the dominant perceptions of war in fiction and Hollywood films in the years before and during the Vietnam involvement were those of these myths.
Apart from their use of traditional concepts and conventional narrative techniques, war stories of the kind just outlined also share two other premises. One is a basically unchallenged belief in the leading role of the United States in a teleologically progressive history of mankind; the other is what might be called a 'realist' position concerning the relation of literature to historical events—i.e. the assumption that historical events are 'objective', that their chronological sequence is meaningful in and of itself, and that the task of fiction in relation to historical events is the post factum revelation of this meaning by various traditional literary techniques. Against this understanding of literature as a more or less well-wrought, ancillary explanation of official historical events, a small but distinct group of writers see the task of fiction not as the representation of familiar facts but as the creation of (literary) answers in response to, not in imitation of, events of national historical importance. To some extent all these writers share the assumption that meaning is created not by the mere chronological sequence of events but by the way those events are 'spoken of'—i.e. the order and sense we give to them according to our (culturally diverse) modes of conceptualising and contextualising. Inevitably this means that the meta-fictional dimension tends to dominate these authors' texts, which make the reader aware of how fictional discourse constitutes itself.
Robin Moore's The Green Berets (1965) is typical of the conventional war story. Its animated cartoon heroes have the same basic characteristics as the heroes of James Jones's gritty combat novels and share James Bond's explosive professional self-sufficiency. A well-blended concoction of macho American stereotypes serves up patriotism, adventure, secret-mission suspense and heroic individualism, with more than enough brutalising rhetoric to drive home how tough and professional these guys really are who successfully complete one dangerous mission after another on the new frontiers of democracy. Moving expertly in the dangerous limbo on the outer edge of civilised society, these supermen embody the heroic frontier man, the 'good gunman' as state marshal, the stubborn 'good detective', and their ilk. They fight for law and order in spite of their corrupt or weak superiors and the bungling military bureaucracy; and, if they seem much like the enemy in their use of deceit and brutality, they are usually more efficient, and the end justifies the means. Yet they are basically good comrades, with a soft spot for gentle women and helpless children. Moore dutifully differentiates between 'good good guys' and 'bad good guys', whose names usually suggest non-WASP ethnic groups and their supposed characteristics: Korn and Schmelzer have German names and Nazi tendencies; Ossidian, with an American name, is cruel and sly; men with Mexican or Italian names are passionate and crafty.
The Green Berets' enemies are 'Communists (C), black hordes, monkeys', or the Vietnamese in general—gooks', 'dinks', female 'slanteyes': inferior, sub-human creatures who are conceded to have human qualities only when dying in 'brilliant white pools of napalm'. Then 'human torches cry their last'. There is no doubt that they will share the fate of their literary predecessors, the devilish 'injuns'. Strangely enough, the danger never ceases, though scores of black-pyjama'd fanatics are blown to kingdom come on the Berets' perfectly executed missions.
By his use of symbol systems based on a trivialised version of historical racial warfare, Moore demonstrates his fundamental failure (or unwillingness) to understand the real issues of the Vietnam conflict and reduces the representatives of a foreign culture to abstract embodiments of evil, the exotic and the inferior. In consequence, the American heroes become equally abstract, stereotyped agents of the 'good cause'. The success of Moore's book, which by 1975 had sold 3.2 million copies and is still selling (a new edition was published by Ballantine in 1983), was reflected in a movie version starring John Wayne, and shows that its perception of the American involvement in Vietnam as another just mission in the fight for democracy and freedom was shared by a statistically significant number of Americans. The more recent success of Rambo: First Blood II, of which Moore's novel is in some ways a forerunner, is evidence that this viewpoint is still widely held. In what may be considered an inner-American counter-point to Moore's well-written vision of American success, Norman Mailer in Why are we in Vietnam? (1967) employs a stylised sixties hipster idiom that suggests an extreme situation of a different kind. In order to render the anonymous information overload of a repressive post-industrial society geared to maximum performance, Mailer chooses a kind of electronic-stream-of-consciousness technique for his fictional psychoanalysis of the collective American unconscious. His comprehensive understanding of war—he once called 'form in general' the 'record of war'—indicates that for him 'war' is the life principle, understood as the dialectic interaction of opposing forces manifest in individual struggles, in cosmic events, in politics, and even in the artist's struggle for adequate literary form. In his attempt to express the irrationalities he sees as underlying the American involvement in Vietnam, Mailer employs a highly idiosyncratic form of genital-scatological symbolism which brings together contemporary concepts from Reich, Marcuse, N. O. Brown and McLuhan. The result is a generously four-letter-worded discourse, delivered by a protean 'narrative voice', that explodes a fair number of traditional American myths and self-images. And, while one may argue about the validity of some of Mailer's criticism, there is little doubt that his novel provides a fascinating, if not very optimistic, fictional analysis of the complex struggle of American youth for an identity of their own in a decade that deprived them of the values held by their parents.
The loss of values and traditional symbol systems for sense-making is a trademark of much Vietnam fiction. The same is true of a good deal of 'faction' based on the war, especially that written after its end, such as Michael Herr's Dispatches. Herr, sharing his readers knowledge of the outcome of the Vietnam conflict, sets out not to glorify but to understand and tell the truth, according to his personal experience. His book is quite a contrast to Moore's, and, even allowing for the rather different perspectives and attitudes of the authors, it is obvious that the war Herr writes about is not the same one as Moore had in mind. In addition, the two texts provide ample ground for comparison of fictional strategies. Moore's book follows the success-story formula: all missions are carefully planned and smoothly executed in a sort of ideal war. The linear narrative discourse suggests definite beginnings, goals and ends—'Mission completed, Sir!'—and it does not matter that no end is in sight. With Herr, we get no supermen but brave and occasionally quietly heroic soldiers who try to survive in a war that does not make sense. Employing collage and montage techniques that do not belong to the standard repertoire of media correspondents (except the 'new journalists'), Dispatches shows the formidable difficulties involved in writing traditional 'stories' about this war which was, as one reviewer put it, 'all circumference, had no center, and was therefore difficult to filter through unified plot and point of view' (E. Pochloda, in The Nation, no. 25 (1978) p. 344). The ordered reality that Moore's discourse presupposes does not exist in Herr's Vietnam:
The spokesmen spoke in words that had no currency left as words, sentences with no hope of meaning in the sane world, and if much of it was sharply queried by the press, all of it got quoted. The press got all the facts (more or less), it got too many of them. But it never found a way to report meaningfully about death, which of course is really what it was all about. The most repulsive, transparent gropes for sanctity in the midst of the killing received serious treatment in the papers and on the air. The jargon of progress got blown into our heads like bullets, and by the time you waded through all the Washington stories and all the Saigon stories, all the Other War stories and the corruption stories and the stories about brisk new gains in ARVN effectiveness, the suffering was somehow unimpressive. And after enough years of that, so many that it seemed to have been going on forever, you got to a point where you could sit there in the evening and listen to the man say that American casualties for the week had reached a six-week low, only eighty G.I. s had died in combat, and you'd feel like you'd just gotten a bargain.
The problems implied here—a certain numbing indifference, the inability to decide which story to believe and how to tell it, the fact that war has become a habit—show the combined effects of information overload, moral uncertainty, and lack of motivation and of definite strategic goals. All of this leads to an entropy of meaning not unlike that exhibited in the works of contemporary fiction writers such as Pynchon, Barth, Barthelme and Vonnegut. The borderline between 'story' and 'history' blurs in direct relation to the extent to which official interpretations of reality and individual experience are moving apart, and the individual can no longer use common cultural symbol systems to explain events to himself and others.
After Herr's excellent, if puzzled and puzzling, 'factual' account, let us turn to the novel which I think provides the most powerful literary expression so far of the specific characteristics of the US experience in Vietnam: Tim O'Brien's Going after Cacciato. Its sensitive narrator-protagonist, Paul Berlin, is dropped into a world he thinks he knows from various secondary sources: his father's tales of the Second World War, movies and television series (Iwo Jima, Hogan's Heroes, M∗A∗S∗H), daily media coverage, and supposedly true-to-life simulatory training in boot camp. His attempts to understand the reality of Vietnam by applying the rules of this media-created 'reality' fail abysmally and lead him to a terrifying awareness of his fundamental ignorance. A fellow soldier's 'death of fright' which Paul witnesses on his first patrol becomes, for him, the 'ultimate war story'. Like the key motifs in earlier war novels—Dresden in Slaughterhouse-Five, Snowden's death in Catch-22, Hennessy's death at the beginning of The Naked and the Dead, or the retreat from Caporetto in A Farewell to Arms—this experience makes the protagonist shockingly aware of his own precarious situation.
The figure of the sensitive and critical intellectual has been with American war fiction ever since Andrews in the Dos Passos novel Three Soldiers, but O'Brien introduces a number of new elements. In order to involve the reader in his protagonist's attempts at sense-making, i.e. his 'storifying of experience', he uses two clearly distinguishable modes of literary discourse. One renders Berlin's memories of the past events ('what happened'), the other his imaginative pursuit of Cacciato across Eurasia to Paris ('what might have happened'). The two levels interact and interfere with each other: while imaginatively leaving the dangerous world of war in his pseudo-legitimate pursuit of the deserter Cacciato, Berlin (mostly involuntarily) remembers—and finally comes to terms with—the horrors of war in an alien environment. O'Brien's innovation here lies in the way he uses his sophisticated 'dialog of discourses' to juxtapose the 'factual' and the 'fictional' modes of literary sense-making. The discourse of Berlin's memory recalls the phenomenological style of the Hemingway tradition and consciously places itself in the context of previous war fictions. Let me give an example of what I mean by this.
In one passage Paul remembers a firebreak during a patrol in hilly terrain that has been devastated by aerial bombardment—the caustic Doc Peret christens it the 'World's Greatest Lake Country'. Cacciato, the prototypical young innocent-ignorant American soldier, casts an improvised fishing-line into one of the bomb-craters filled with rainwater:
He tied a paperclip to a length of string, baited it up with bits of ham, then attached a bobber fashioned out of an empty aerosol can labeled Secret. Cacciato moved down to the lip of the crater. He paused as if searching for proper waters, then flipped out the line. The bobber made a splashing sound.
The obvious allusion here is to Hemingway's famous short story 'Big Two-Hearted River', where Nick Adams, back from the war, attempts to regain his bearings in the world by the familiar ritual of trout fishing. Also evident are the contrasts in style and semantic differences between Cacciato's acts and Nick's preparations for trout fishing.
For both, the ritual of fishing is meant to reconstitute their sense of personal identity, yet its respective forms and directions take quite different turns. Hemingway's Nick, symbolically placed with the burned land around Seyney behind him and the swamp before him, is able to determine his position in the world—the river and the campsite—by doing the right things, or rather by 'doing things right', and thus establishes a working relationship with his natural environment. Compared to this, the very material Cacciato uses for fishing—some string, a paperclip, a piece of canned ham, an empty aerosol can—signifies more than just a low grotesque version of Yankee ingenuity. In the world of the seventeen-year-old Cacciato, no piece of untouched nature is left between the burned land and the swamp; both have been fused in the lifeless wasteland of the 'World's Greatest Lake Country'. Interaction with such an environment to constitute one's identity must take a different form from Nick's parallel attempt; Cacciato's fishing becomes an ambiguous symbolic gesture. On the one hand an act of individual self-assertion, this clinging to a familiar ritual is on the other an expression of boyish helplessness and withdrawal into oneself. The situational inadequacy of the youth's behaviour makes it a striking image of his despair.
Opposed, and sometimes complementary, to the disturbing memories of despair and death, Paul Berlin's imaginative discourse creates an alternative reality on the occasion of a night watch. Berlin makes it clear that his imaginings are more than mere escapist daydreaming or pretending:
Not a dream, but an idea. An idea to develop, to tinker with and build and sustain, to draw out as an artist draws out his visions…. It was a working out of the possibilities. It wasn't dreaming and it wasn't pretending…. It was a way of asking questions.
While Berlin's memories contain all the horrors of war, his imaginings are full of the popular myths and stereotypes a twenty-year-old may come up with in his attempts to build 'a smooth arc from war to peace'. We see the 'story within stories' unfold before us, flounder along and, finally, shatter on the senselessness of war. With a sharp eye for the incongruences between popular myths and historical realities, O'Brien inverts the motif of the American Westward movement. 'Going West' does not lead Cacciato and his pursuers to untouched new continents but to Paris: the city where American independence was officially ratified in 1783; the city that served as the symbol of European culture in the First World War and was celebrated by Americans in the Second; but in 1968 the city where negotiations for peace in Vietnam were bogged down around the notorious oval conference table. Paris as the literal 'vanishing point' of Cacciato's and Paul Berlin's imaginative journey—'Imagination, like reality, has its limits'—is a sign that the American Westward movement has come full circle, and a reminder of the ironical fact that the United States, itself a former colony, took over from France as the colonising power in Indo China. At the end of the novel, Cacciato, the enigmatic symbol of innocence and ignorance, is missing in action. Thus O'Brien, while leaving open the possibility that Cacciato may still be alive, makes it clear that in relation to the American involvement in Vietnam traditional concepts of the 'just war', the 'unique historical mission' and the 'crusade for democracy' have lost their power of providing explanatory symbol systems. Now they are stories, overtaken by historical realities. Paul Berlin, while still unable to make sense of the war, has finally taken a significant step toward self-definition: his imaginative questioning of the realities of war has yielded no easy solutions, but a heightened awareness that helps him distinguish clearly between what happened and what might have happened. By such means O'Brien's novel manages to interrelate, as far as it is possible, main elements of the two major modes of writing about war, the 'factual' and the 'imaginative', that have been employed by American authors since the Second World War.
This is not achieved in John Del Vecchio's The 13th Valley (1982). Here is an example of the attempt to write a 'naturalist epic' about Vietnam, in the tradition of Dos Passos, Irwin Shaw, Mailer's The Naked and the Dead and James Jones's The Thin Red Line. The novel's merits are obvious, but even more so its final failure to grasp the special quality of the American experience in Vietnam. Intentionally or not, Del Vecchio uses two levels of discourse that are hermetically sealed off against each other. One is that of the traditional story of a patrol in enemy country, with all its ups and downs, details of army life, equipment, weapons and so on, and a (somewhat melodramatic) finale in which most of the main characters and half the company die heroically in fulfilment of their duty; of the major figures, only the Ishmael-like Chellini survives to tell the tale. None of the usual problems that Americans were facing in Vietnam exists on this level of the novel: US soldiers fight North Vietnamese regulars in an otherwise uninhabited mountain valley, so it's soldiers against soldiers in a campaign that might have taken place in the Second World War or perhaps Korea.
All the real problems of Vietnam are mentioned in the second level of discourse—that of meditation and discussion, camp-fire talks and so forth. Here we learn about social, cultural, ethical, political and military problems—racial antagonism, anti-war protest, personal problems, and the like; but all this leaves the level of action curiously unaffected. In keeping these two discourses apart, Del Vecchio employs a kind of narrative immunisation strategy which allows him to avoid tackling the real issues of the American experience in Vietnam without leaving them out of the picture altogether.
In a way, this seems to exemplify a major trend in the United States ever since the Vietnam veterans, enraged by the national public welcome given to the returning Iranian hostages in 1980, came out of the closet. To me there are signs of an easy kind of revisionism which (not altogether unintentionally, I assume) links two completely different things. What I mean is that there is a tendency, in rehabilitating the Vietnam veterans, to present the war itself in a more positive light. Just to make my point clear: I am definitely for the long-overdue rehabilitation of the veterans, but would argue that they are being exploited and abused all over again if this is used to justify an unjustifiable war. (Rambo: First Blood II is a typical product of this trend. [In an endnote, Hölbling adds: 'The most recent American movie about Vietnam, Platoon, provides a much-needed counterpoint to Rambo: First Blood II; so far the most balanced of commercial movie releases on this topic, it seems to indicate that the American Vietnam trauma may begin to receive a different treatment from that of "regeneration through (cinematic) violence".']) It seems that the painful truth that more than 50,000 young Americans died in a war which still defies explanation by standard American self-concepts is not easily acknowledged. There is a great temptation to confuse means and ends, and to sanction the Vietnam War by doing justice to those who had to fight it.
Let me conclude by summing up what I consider to be the main characteristics of the 'well-made novels' and more critical and questioning works on war in American fiction since the beginning of the US involvement in Vietnam. The Vietnam experience has not only influenced writings on that war, but has also, I believe, been highly significant for perceptive American writers (such as Heller, Vonnegut and Pynchon) dealing with the Second World War in novels published while the Vietnam War was in progress.
The mainstream consists of works written in the traditional mimetic modes, based on the assumption that war, as a specific historical event, takes its place in a (usually vaguely implied) teleological process of history, and that the task of fiction is to tell 'what it was really like' with the help of traditional literary techniques. Seen in this perspective, war is an exceptional historical situation interrupting an otherwise more or less civilised evolutionary progress toward a higher state of civilisation; indeed, it is explained by the need to defend this peaceful development against dangerous disturbances. In the novels that take this point of view we usually receive information about the characters' civilian lives before (and sometimes after) the war, follow them through basic training and into combat, learn about their problems and thoughts—all of this in the context of a linearly progressive narrative that feeds the reader's desire for mimetic illusion with (seemingly) realistic details of places, dates, the military hierarchy, technological equipment, battlefields, and so forth. It all adds up to the idea that the war—like the world as a whole—is explainable; actions and events follow the familiar pattern of cause and effect, and, if anything goes wrong, we know why. The fictional world is basically that of the nineteenth-century realist novel, where events proceed in linear sequence, if sometimes parallel in time, and are presented by means of a corresponding plot structure. We either follow the protagonists chronologically through the war years (James Webb, Fields of Fire) or, again chronologically, follow them through a specific campaign or mission (Josiah Bunting, The Lionheads; John Briley, The Traitors, Del Vecchio, The 13th Valley), which has a definite beginning and end corresponding to the sequence of events in time and space. Whether or not the novel is critical of the army or war goals is irrelevant to this dimension of the text, but it is manifest in the use the novel makes of patriotic imagery, characterisation, ideological rhetoric and (happy) endings.
The sense of an ending in war—and of closure in the narrative—implies that at least those who survive return to business as usual; it also suggests that the world of war is categorically different from the world of peace. Other rules of conduct apply, and one has to adjust, even if it may be difficult. A fair number of novels add distinctly Freudian overtones to the world of war, describing it as a space where men temporarily change (back) into fighting animals, rely on their instincts, and live out their aggressions and drives in words and in actions. The higher purpose of their relapse into a culturally anachronistic state is, of course, to ensure the continuing existence of that advanced cultural state from which they have temporarily descended. War is a regrettable yet necessary means of ensuring the progress of humankind. It is this basically optimistic understanding of war as a concrete historical event limited in time and space and sanctioned by transcending goals that makes its horror, its irrationalities and the suffering it causes acceptable to the reader.
Unlike the mainstream novels, the innovative texts use war as a complex metaphor for our contemporary industrialised information society, in which traditional distinctions between 'peace' and 'war' are rapidly losing their validity. What were formerly thought of as acts of 'warlike' behaviour now appear to be variants of basic problem-solving strategies on a scale that ranges from individual verbal aggression to the collective use of violence organised and sanctioned by the state. As R. E. Canjar puts it in a recent article ['The Modern Way of War, Society, and Peace,' American Quarterly, 36, no. 3 (1984)].
War in short, is neither an emotional, moral, or political aberration; it is the socialized production of violence and its monopoly use by the state…. Both corporate social life and corporate social death are materially produced by social means. It is for this reason that such phenomena as the military-industrial complex occur. It has less to do with conspiracies than it is a routine outcome of a production process in which the means, methods, labor, technology and organizations simultaneously serve, and often fail to distinguish between, the production of life and the production of death.
War in this sense is no longer a limited historical event but threatens to become a way of life; accordingly, in the more innovative war novels (and in related works such as Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow), war is global and ever-present. Peace exists only temporarily in the shape of ideal spaces contrasting with the fictional world of war—Alaska, Sweden, Tralfamadore, Paris—and inevitably turns out to be but a projection of the narrator/protagonist's wishful thinking. The absence of peaceful spaces (and times) corresponds to the absence of a teleological concept of history in which war can be given a place and meaning, and within which the individual can understand himself and his actions as contributing to a collective goal definable in terms of commonly accepted symbol systems.
Such prerequisites for joint action are no longer functional in these texts. Meaning, if it exists at all, is constituted only in a highly individualised, sometimes hermetically solipsist, 'totality of vision', on both the textual and the metatextual level. The advanced deconstruction of collectively or even intersubjectively valid codes produces a multitude of equally valid, idiosyncratic symbol systems and discourses. They resemble the pluralist structures in complex (post-)industrial societies, where a heightened sense of individuality corresponds to a reciprocal loss of collective agreement upon common goals. One result is a kaleidoscopic supply of information that leaves the individual with practically infinite options for sense-making or, viewed differently, with an entropy of meaning. The innovative authors translate this insight into the structure and discourse of their novels and point to the roots of violent aggression in our everyday patterns of communication and socialisation. The reader, involved in the texts by force of their continuous deferral of definite meaning, comes to realise that language is indeed, as John Hawkes once put it, 'the most powerful kind of actuality' ['John Hawkes: An Interview,' in The Contemporary Writer: Interview with Sixteen Novelists and Poets, edited by L.S. Dembo and Cyrena N. Pondrom, 1972]. On a more radical level, whatever kind of reality these texts present, the simple truth is impressed upon the reader that the very concept of 'reality' only exists because there is a perceiving and reflecting human consciousness. The literary discourse on war, creating fictional models of speechless confrontation, powerfully reminds us of the primal necessity to interact by signs rather than by wordless acts of destruction: far from being the 'motor of history', war threatens the very foundations of meaningful communication.
Philip D. Beidler (essay date 1990)
SOURCE: "Re-Writing America: Literature as Cultural Revision in the New Vietnam Fiction," in America Rediscovered: Critical Essays on Literature and Film of the Vietnam War, edited by Owen W. Gilman, Jr. and Lorrie Smith, Garland Publishing, Inc., 1990, pp. 3-9.
[Beidler is the author of American Literature and the Experience of Vietnam (1982). In the essay below, he argues that Tim O'Brien's Going After Cacciato and Stephen Wright's Meditations in Green are works of cultural revision that offer the "prospect of a new imaginative fiction of the American experience of Vietnam."]
"We can truly be transformed, and even possibly redeemed, by electing to write at times of what happened—but also of what might have happened, what could have happened, what should have happened, and also what can be kept from happening or what can be made to happen…. Words are all we have." These words happen to be mine, although they have their origin in the words of the fine novelist, Tim O'Brien, who in turn had earlier made them the words, in his Going After Cacciato, of the fictional protagonist, Paul Berlin. In them we find a call and a challenge to a new art that would be a kind of ultimate cultural revision, an art that, even as it acknowledges the painful memory of the experience of Vietnam, would make possible the imaginative projection of that memory into new dimensions of consciousness, individual and collective, often providing equally new insights into knowledge, meaning, and value. It is a call, in the fullest terms of artistic possibility, to do nothing less than re-write ourselves, and apace, to re-write America.
The project of cultural revision so defined supplies the artistic agenda for Vietnam fiction even in a number of extremely early and highly experimental works such as Norman Mailer's Why Are We in Vietnam?, James Crumley's One to Count Cadence, and William Eastlake's The Bamboo Bed. It certainly continues to dictate the evolution of variously experimental styles in subsequent novels such as Charles Durden's No Bugles, No Drums, John Clark Pratt's The Laotian Fragments, and David Winn's Gangland, not to mention, on the other side of what might be called the meta-fictive coin, Michael Herr's Dispatches. It is in Tim O'Brien's award-winning Going After Cacciato, however, and in Stephen Wright's more recent and comparably acclaimed Meditations in Green, that we find the issue most fully elaborated. In them, we are confronted with the prospect of a new imaginative fiction of the American experience of Vietnam that indeed might ultimately reify itself into redemptory cultural fact.
The better known of the two works, Going After Cacciato, makes its creative task clear from the outset:
Paul Berlin, whose only goal was to live long enough to establish goals worth living for still longer, stood high in the tower by the sea, the night soft all around him, and wondered, not for the first time, about the immense powers of his own imagination. A truly awesome notion. Not a dream, an idea. An idea to develop, to tinker with and build and sustain, to draw out as an artist draws out his visions.
Thus begins a novel that, as one quickly sees, is actually two, or possibly three, novels, each of which, moreover, can be read only in terms of its other or others. In a guard tower by the South China Sea, Specialist Fourth Class Paul Berlin stands lonely vigil and thinks out at once a fact-book and a fantasy-book, a book of memory and a book of imagination. Connected by frequent interchapters in what perhaps might be considered a third book—entitled, appropriately, "The Observation Post,"—the other two flow in and out of each other at will until all boundaries of consciousness seem dissolved. What results is a whole far greater than the sum of its parts, one in which Berlin rewrites himself and his America into new realms of individual and collective insight.
The domain of fact or memory is a nightmare-continuum of particular horrors. Frenchie Tucker gets shot through the nose. Bernie Lynn dies of a tunnel wound, shot from his chest straight down into his vitals. Billy Boy Watkins dies of fright on the field of battle, screaming his dreadful scream, trying to lace back on the boot that holds what used to be his foot. Buff winds up ass-high in the air, "like a praying Arab in Mecca," his upturned helmet holding all that remains of his disposable humanity in the muck of his shot-away face.
Then, as if all along, enter and exit Cacciato. "Dumb as a bullet," says one G.I. "Dumb as a month-old oyster fart," says another. Dumb, perhaps, but apparently not crazy. Or maybe just dumb and crazy enough to think he can pull it off. "Split, departed," says Doc Peret, and somehow, incredibly, miraculously, "Gone to Paris." So, in Going After Cacciato, the real quickly begins to meld into the imaginative, the factually just plausible into the fictively just possible. Cacciato goes. Berlin and the others follow. Apace, Berlin ponders: "what part was fact and what part was the extension of fact? And how were facts separated from possibilities? What had really happened and what merely might have happened? How did it end?"
The fictive road to Paris does somehow magically end there, and in the negotiations that ultimately terminate American participation in the war. At the same time, the novel remains firmly anchored in the experience of the battlefield and centered on the movement of Berlin's particular experiential consciousness toward the recognition of new possibilities of acceptance and understanding. Within this twofold movement, the complex play of style re-engenders that whole vast collocation of memory, myth, metaphor, slogan, political shibboleth, and popular cliché that was in fact America in Vietnam.
It will be remembered, for example, that "The Road to Paris" was the literal expression used by bureaucratic and journalistic phrase-makers to describe the tortuous, and often nearly absurd labors—including some prolonged squabbling over the shape and dimensions of a conference table—of getting the peace talks set in motion. It will also be remembered that "The Road to" any number of places once supplied the title to any number of innocently ridiculous American movies that made comedy, in some of the bleakest times of war, out of danger and dire predicament. Here Berlin finds his Dorothy Lamour—it is hard in fact to think of the new model as being clothed in anything but a sarong—in Sarkin Aung Wan, his Vietnamese companion and spiritual guide. He persistently finds himself playing pensive Crosby to wisecracking Hope in the nimble Doc Peret. Peril mixes with pratfall all the way. They and the rest of Cacciato's pursuers barely escape death at the hands of the Shah's dreaded Savak. They miraculously avoid detection as they slip ashore in Greece. They traverse the breadth of Europe looking over their shoulders for pursuers.
In Asia itself, they have already fallen, Alice-in-Wonderland-like, through "A Hole in the Road to Paris" and have wound up seeing "The Light" at the end of General Westmoreland's "Tunnel." The "Light" turns out to be a periscope manned by an aged Vietnamese who is himself a deserter condemned there now for ten years. Berlin, looking through the eyepiece and seeing in imagination, he realizes, Bernie Lynn and Frenchie Tucker in precisely the same moment of his experiential memory of their descent and death, understands for a split second that here the Americans have the chance to see the war from the other side. It is too late. Berlin's platoon commander, a sick, aging relic of American wars, destroys the periscope with six rounds from his M-16. Shortly, they all fall back out of the Hole on the Road to Paris, and, the lesson of perspective lost, continue on their weary, imperiled way. Such fantasy wordplay is also grounded in mythic memories of other times and other wars and empires as well. One of the roads on the Road to Paris turns out to be the Road to Mandalay. What they ultimately seek, the most recent in a long line of historical belligerents, is the "Peace of Paris." Shortly after they arrive, Berlin finds a New York Herald-Tribune carrying news of the death of Eisenhower. On the front page are two pictures, one of Eisenhower as a cadet at West Point, the other of "him riding into Paris, the famous grin, the jeep swamped by happy Frenchmen."
Berlin reads on. So at the end, even as at the beginning, he sees, it remains all of a piece, the world, himself, his America: "The world went on. Old facts warmed over. Nixon was President. In Chicago, a federal grand jury had handed down indictments against eight demonstrators at the Democratic convention the previous summer. He'd missed that—the whole thing had happened while he was in basic training. Tear gas and cops, something like that. No matter: Dagwood still battled Mr. Dithers. What changed? The war went on. 'In an effort to bring the Peace Talks to a higher level of dialogue, the Secretary of Defense has ordered the number of B-52 missions over the North to be dropped from 1,800 to 1,600 a month;' mean-while, in the South, it was a quiet week, with sporadic and light action confined to the Central Highlands and Delta. Only 204 more dead men. And Ike. Ike was dead and an era had ended."
So it goes in "The Observation Post." Still, if nothing has really changed, a very great deal may have been learned and gained. The mythic cycle may persist, but one may also still elect not to succumb to its grim dominion. Like Yossarian, Berlin elects to persevere. "Insight, vision. What you remember is what you see, and what you see depends on what you remember. A cycle, Doc Peret had said. A cycle that has to be broken. And this requires a fierce concentration on the process itself: focus on the order of things, sort out the flow of events so as to understand how one thing led to another, search for that point at which what happened had been extended into a vision of what might have happened." Persevere. Seek the possibility in the face of all of it still to be able to say the two words with which the novel ends: "Maybe so."
Apropos of the mode of fiction that over the last two decades or so we have come to call "magical realism," an alternate title for Going After Cacciato might be "Henry Fleming meets Jorge Luis Borges and/or Gabriel Garcia Marquez and/or Italo Calvino." A comparable gloss on Stephen Wright's Meditations in Green might be something like "Johnny Appleseed meets the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers." It is a drug-addled American pastorale, a whole lurid apocalypse of collective myth. At the same time, this general nightmare, through the shaping and transforming process of imaginative art, ultimately does come, magically, miraculously, by the novel's end, to bear also the generative promise of new creation.
As with Going After Cacciato, Meditations in Green quickly turns out to be a novel that is several novels, again each of which can only be read in terms of the others. It begins with one of a series of inter-chapters entitled "Meditations in Green." It then moves to two other narratives, one emanating from a first-person narrator and another from a third-person narrator. The former announces himself early on: "I, your genial narrator, wreathed in a beard of smoke, look into the light and recite strange tales from the war back in the long ago time." It is, as we soon find out, perhaps one of the most familiar of Vietnam litanies: "Dear Mom, Stoned Again." His book is a book of imagination. At the same time, he is also the other narrator as well. There, his book is a book of memory. The two merge and interflow in and out of each other to form, as the interchapters remind us, a series of meditations in green, and one ultimately in which the institutional war-green, the olive drab of death and old destruction becomes the fruitional green of promise, the peace-green of life and new creation.
In the book of memory—Vietnam—we are given the whole stoned, lurid spectacle. The setting is in a military intelligence unit that specializes in photo-interpretation and physical torture. The narrator-protagonist, Griffin, and his fellow draftees who work there spend their lives in a near-permanent state of drugged hallucination. The unit commander dies on take-off in a plane most likely sabotaged by a homicidal G.I. Grunts from the Spook House drive around in their jeep with decomposing Viet Cong corpses sitting in the back seat. The corpses are wearing party hats. Weird Wendell, enlisting fellow G.I.'s and base-camp Vietnamese, makes a make-believe war-movie with a cast of thousands. During the last scene the idiotic make-believe comes hideously real. His creative endeavors interrupted by an actual Viet Cong attack on the base camp, Wendell keeps filming. A plane takes a direct hit from a mortar round. He films the pilot being incinerated in his cockpit. He films a U.S. Captain and "a genuine VC in black shorts locked in a lover's clench on the gravel outside the O club and stabbing one another at intervals with long knives." In an ensuing explosion, Wendell himself falls, mangled, mortally wounded. He dies giving camera directions and quoting from a cherished copy of Atlas Shrugged. Over in the chapel, a real film has been playing all the while, spectatorless. Griffin wonders how it came out. He does not know that it has self-destructed, as has Wendell's, on the last frame. In fact, as in fantasy,—or, if you will, in fantasy as in fact,—it is Vietnam, the movie: "The screen was blank, a rectangle of burning light."
Back in the world, both initially and for a good part of the novel to come, we are forced to comprehend what seems an equally nightmarish mixup of fact and phantasmagoria. Literally and literarily, they blend across a whole stoned, echolalic spectrum. Trips, Griffin's war buddy, endlessly stalks after and plots lovingly various forms of demise for a figure he takes to be his old NCO nemesis, Sergeant Antrim. Griffin finds a friend and possible soulmate named Huette Mirandella. Her nickname: Huey. More neo-Shakespearean horseplay shows up in a botanic psychologist named Arden. As in Vietnam, so back in the world, it can only get crazier and crazier. Trips continues his mad quest. Huey pronounces "all this plant jive" thus far but "words, words, words." It is time, she challenges Griffin, to "test how green your thumb really is."
As the novel would have it, the exhortation is, both figuratively and quite literally, the crucial seed planted in the fertile ground of ever-creating consciousness. Out of a nightmare memory of old death comes a generative thrusting forth of imagination into imagings and envisionings of new life.
As in Going After Cacciato, the book of fact and the book of imagination in Meditations in Green merge at the novel's end, and with comparable result. Outside, nothing much probably does change a very great deal. Given the way the world goes, the operative question may well always be the one recorded at the bottom line of the last of the novel's meditations in green: "Who has a question for Mr. Memory?" In life, this may indeed always be the basic issue. At the same time, however, through the generative power of art, there has now emerged also the possibility that such a going back might become the stuff of a going ahead as well. And that going ahead for Stephen Wright, as with Dylan Thomas, will lie in "the green fuse that drives the flower," the vision of an art that would come to touch on nothing less than the eternal springs of creation. Here may yet reside, one may be bold enough to believe, the answer to what Griffin announces near the end as "Problem of the Age." Question: "how to occupy the diminishing interval between fire and wind and flags." Answer: Imagine. Create. Make it happen. "I think my thumb has always been green," he exclaims. The dream of a new imaginative possibility has come to germination:
In the spring I'll wander national highways, leather breeches around my legs, pot on my head, sowing seeds from the burlap bag across my shoulder, resting in the afternoon in the shade of a laurel tree. At night I carve peace pipes from old cypress branches. Everywhere the green fuses are burning and look now, snipping rapidly ahead of your leaping eye, the forged blades cutting through the page, the transformation of this printed sheet twisted about a metal stem for your lapel your hat your antenna, a paper emblem of the widow's hope, the doctor's apothecary, the veteran's friend: a modest flower.
In the play of the text, the extending of experiential and cultural memory into new dimensions of imaginative possibility, the veteran's flower newly engenders itself out of the memorial of death into the promise of new life. Flower Power indeed. The veteran's friend, his dream, his creation, his gift to you: peace.
Marilyn Durham (essay date 1990)
SOURCE: "Narrative Strategies in Recent Vietnam War Fiction," in America Rediscovered: Critical Essays on Literature and Film of the Vietnam War, edited by Owen W. Gilman, Jr. and Lorrie Smith, Garland Publishing, Inc., 1990, pp. 100-08.
[In the following essay, Durham discusses point-of-view in three novels about Vietnam veterans—Larry Heinemann's Paco's Story, Philip Caputo's Indian Country, and Bobbie Ann Mason's In Country.]
Literature of the Vietnam War, since it concerns experiences most readers have not personally lived through, must face an initial obstacle in engaging not only our interest, but more crucially our participation, in constructing its singular reality. As in all literary encounters, communication between writer and audience is a result of their active partnership, but Vietnam may be an especially difficult environment to share in that it is not only excessively foreign to most of us, but it may also be intensely painful. The war is a world which the majority of readers will not have physically entered, and if we are to make sense of it we must do more than read about it; we must become complicit in mentally rebuilding it and imaginatively living in it. One wedge into an unknown universe is narrative point of view.
This strategy is handled variously, and with different results, in three novels which explore the impact of the war on veterans and their families. Paco's Story by Larry Heinemann, Indian Country by Philip Caputo, and In Country by Bobbie Ann Mason all focus on the efforts of a returning soldier to reinsert himself into normal life. We learn much about the war experiences of each veteran, but we learn more about the emotional and physical fallout of Vietnam for themselves and the people they come home to. In each book, narrative strategy calibrates the intensity of our engagement in each story and its truth. Heinemann and Mason isolate one voice to draw us into their narrative structures, and this focus invites our sympathy, identification, and ultimate insight into the speaker's experience. We feel privileged to know the storyteller's world from the inside, to see it from behind his own eyes. Caputo's detached and omniscient narrator, on the other hand, and the author's movement from one character's consciousness to another, separate a reader from that one insistent vision necessary to our complete understanding. This resulting distance between story and reader precludes our full participation in Indian Country.
The voice which narrates Paco's Story does so with a special authority: he was there with Paco, at Fire Base Harriette, when the company was attacked, leaving Paco the only survivor. The soldier who speaks to us was killed we learn, and Paco's story is told to us by a ghost, surrounded by the other ghosts of Paco's company. We don't know the ghost's name and we don't know who James is (the speaker constantly addresses this friend), but we do know these are men who fought with Paco, who humped the jungle with him, who set the ambushes, and who raped the VC prisoner. The unstinting realism and concreteness of the narrative conjures an image of a ghostly storyteller, surrounded by a circle of intimates, concerned with revealing the truth. This authority and experiential immediacy draws us in; the expression is so vital and heartfelt because so intensely lived that we experience its pain and its beauty through a special lens. It is the lens of a friend, of a loving commentator, a wistful voice which sounds its loss while following the survivor. It is in no way what omniscient narration often becomes: a detached Olympian voice, surveying and reporting. This speaker was on that hill when it was attacked, he lost his life while Paco held on to his, and every fact he reports about Paco resonates with the narrator's awareness of his own dissolution.
While this intimacy is encouraged between reader and narrator, however, his haunting revelations assume a cosmic significance, increasing his stature and diminishing our own. While on the one hand we might imagine we were listening in on a terrifying yet eloquent conversation among intimates, at the same time we are reminded that this is a conversation in heaven or hell—somewhere in the after life—in another world where soldiers gather to stand vigil over survivors of firefights. This tells us that the events at Fire Base Harriette were no mere local affair, but form part of a global even universal perspective. This is a broadening of our consciousness. But we simultaneously hear, smell, taste, and feel the moment concretely—which is a way of focusing our consciousness. The narrative strategy in Paco's Story makes us feel as if we'd been there—in detail—while at the same time forcing us to locate "there" in a larger meaning. Narrative voice and language work to narrow and expand the center of consciousness, and this rhythm akin to the inhale-exhale of the human body, breathes life into Paco's Story.
The narrator begins his account with "the first clean fact" and follows it with a riotous series of facts about life in Vietnam. But the central fact of the massacre, that night when Alpha Company was evaporated, leaving behind only Paco alive, that fact is withheld until the end of the first chapter. After following the man's patter, happily drawn into his rollicking account and even laughing with him, we begin to squirm for we now learn he was one of the "disappeared": "When the mother fuckers hit we didn't go poof of a piece; rather, we disappeared like sand dunes in a stiff and steady offshore ocean breeze—one god-damned grain at a time." The individual crystals of the imagery point to each soldier's separate consciousness and the speaker makes us feel each shell's impact and each life extinguished. But lest we conclude this was an isolated event with only local import, he ends the chapter implying that, on the contrary, it resounds throughout the universe. The cosmic range of Alpha Company's dissolution is suggested when the ghost says: "Oh, we dissolved all right, everybody but Paco, but our screams burst through the ozone … the aurora borealis … frequency-perfect out into God's Everlasting Cosmos." And, he adds, "we're pushing up daisies for half a handful of millenia" while that "blood-curdling scream is rattling all over God's ever-loving Creation like a BB in a boxcar, only louder." We know now that this voice ranges over "God's everloving Creation" and is uttering a terrible truth. We have reveled in his chattiness throughout the first chapter, then we are brought up short when we realize he speaks from the dead. You'd better believe that we begin to listen more closely to the rest.
It is striking, given this awful solemnity and power our narrator suddenly seems to assume, that over the course of the story he creates an intimacy among reader, Paco, and storyteller which directly engages our senses and emotions. After Paco's return to the United States, he rides a bus as far as his money will take him and alights at a small town named Boone. And, here, incredibly, beauty enters this story as the narrator lovingly describes the arrival of spring and the birth of new life Paco perceives around him. The small ugly town where Paco bitterly encounters prejudice and rejection is yet suffused with a luminosity and energy which nature cannot withhold even where a blighted humanity has set up shop. Spots of beauty enter the narrative as Paco enters Boone and stands at the edge of a "broad panorama of farmland and woods, greening up, with the warmth of the lowering sun full in his face, the shadows elongated. The bright spring sky is beginning to cloud over, and a clean moist rain smell fills the air."
The ghostly voice pauses often to look about, and these introspective interruptions invite us to share his wonder at nature's loveliness, as, for example, when Paco stops to watch the rainbows in the mist playing below the bridge. As the story progresses, James is not mentioned as often, the attention lavished on the tactile effect of words increases, and this caress of the landscape enables us to live in Paco's pores. We are again in the midst of an ordinary life. Before we meet Paco on the bus and enter the green world with him, the disembodied voice of the narrator dissolving into the cosmos has clothed the story in apocalyptic colors. However, when we travel behind Paco's eyes, we luxuriate in the ripeness of the warm plums a fellow-traveller hugs to herself in sleep.
The sensual awareness intensifies when Paco enters The Texas Lunch and brings the spring sunshine in the door with him:
And just now that strong, clean, spring-showery yellowy light streaks straight in the back door, a sudden sharp presence that makes everyone blind, startled, lighting up everything.
The narrator invites us to take "this whole image" into our hearts and feel its life-force: "Right this moment, James we could stand in the middle of the street at the edge of the shadow of that bright, late-afternoon light…." Although this voice has constantly intruded on the story and reminded us of his ghostly role, we are brought up short at this heightening of the experiential immediacy of the narrative. "We could stand"—he says, it's like we're right there, James, so feel it. He urgently brings home Paco's sensations to us, but his intrusion evokes the gathering of the dead Alpha Company. Part of what he wants us to notice is the beauty of young, rain-drenched Betsy Sherburne, her shining locks catching the light as Paco gazes at her. And yes, we savor her loveliness at the same time that we feel the loss of this earthly beauty by the narrator and his cronies. Thus, the concrete sensual enjoyment we gain from the minute observation of this day and our awareness of the narrator's distance from this earthly pleasure reinforces the tragedy of Paco's story. It is a mo-ment in time which transports us beyond time and keeps our eyes firmly fixed on the ghosts of those who on longer live in our time.
This lifelike narrative strategy controls the force of the impact, and while Heinemann achieves a visceral thrust with his ghostly narrator, Philip Caputo creates a highly gripping but somehow artificial structure which manages to maintain its distance from a reader. The omniscient voice of Indian Country relates Chris Starkman's tale with the sweep of a camera's eye rather than the passion of a participant. The point of view changes and throughout the book this move through a series of voices is logical but repels our efforts to identify with any one voice. We listen to an external and all-knowing consciousness, to Chris' thoughts, to the mind of his wife June, and to the ruminations of the old Ojibwa Indian Louis, grandfather to Bonny George St. Germaine who was Chris's best friend. This consistent shift in narrative focus allows the story to be told from many different angles but at the same time has an alienating effect. The change in focus reminds us that a narrative construct is being built and diminishes our ability to absorb the persona of the teller and thus make the story our own. There is no central witness to whom we can attach our emotions. While reading Indian Country we are always aware that revelations are orchestrated; we are being shown rather than immersed in experience.
Chris, naturally, is the character whose thoughts we explore most frequently. We often find ourselves understanding the man as he explains himself, but the insightful—yet sanitized—voice of the omniscient narrator repeatedly intrudes on Chris's speculations to clarify a point or strengthen a moral lesson. For example, Chris wrestles with the injustice of a society in which his Indian friend Bonny George must go to Vietnam while he, a middle-class white kid of the same age, can stay home and go to college. We witness this struggle in Chris's mind and become a part of it when our sympathies are pulled toward Bonny; then the narrator breaks in to comment sonorously on the social and political realities of modern America. We are again reminded that these people are characters in a novel and we are being manipulated to feel something for them. We lose sight of Chris because his protective storyteller who knows all has dwarfed the young man's role.
In a special moment of beauty and communion between Chris and Bonny, with the aurora borealis splashed across the night sky, the narrator breaks the spell by observing:
they stood as silent and transfixed as the first human beings ever to behold the wonder of creation … for what was he and what was Bonny George?
Chris doesn't think to himself "what am I," instead we watch Chris staring at the stars and notice a conspicuously philosophic and didactic statement being put into his head. The intrusion closes the moment off—we have not felt it from inside Chris.
Another distancing technique is the series of long retrospective sections which explain how these characters became the people they are. So, for example, we follow Chris into the woods and spend the day with him "cruising timber" for a lumber company, and when he breaks for lunch he suddenly "remembers" in great detail the events between the last time we saw him in the woods with Bonny George and the present walk through the forest.
Our immediate reactions are similarly blunted by the way sentences from the Bible will suddenly enter the narrative when Chris thinks of his father. Lucius Starkman, a pacifist minister who bitterly disapproved of Chris's enlistment, casts his son out of his heart when Chris returns from Vietnam, and much of Indian Country concerns Chris's efforts to reconcile himself to the differences between his father and himself. Biblical quotations, always in italicized print, intrude on Chris' stream of consciousness, and although they often fit the context of Chris's thoughts, they don't seem fully integrated, breaking our absorption in the way Chris' mind is presently working. Chris may be hearing his father's voice, but the words have no flesh for us because we don't know the man who spoke them well enough. The device is finally artificial and ineffective, rendering the distance between reader and story palpable.
The most destructively intrusive narrative element is Caputo's handling of the ghosts. As Chris's mental state deteriorates, he retreats into the safe camaraderie he felt in Vietnam among his fellow soldiers, D.J., Hutch and Ramos. He begins by simply talking to them, but as his withdrawal from reality intensifies, he hallucinates the three figures. Their appearance is not revealed "from the inside" however, as they grow before Chris's disturbed mind, but we experience them from a clinical perspective (as if a psychiatrist were observing a patient). The emphasis on insanity reminds us, again, that we are watching Chris twist in the wind rather than understanding the source of the movement. Chris lashes himself with this fear of insanity when he first sees the ghosts, then blacks out. When he awakens, the narrator reports, he had relaxed
and his mind, working with supernatural speed, grasped the truth in the apparent contradiction that the three men were real and illusory at the same time. He had entered a realm in which distinctions between the imaginary and its opposite did not exist. The instantaneousness with which he came to this understanding astonished him.
The narrator explains that Chris had grasped this truth rather than showing Chris's mind moving toward it. The "instantaneousness" is indeed astonishing because the reader has not been made to see how it happened, and this explanatory mode generated by the intrusive narrator lessens the impact of the ghosts' appearance and conventionalizes their role in the narrative.
Bobbie Ann Mason makes us feel the impact of the war by firmly centering her narrative perspective in the awakening consciousness of Samantha Hughes, aged 17. In Country differs from Paco's Story and Indian Country in that the focal character is not a returning soldier, but the daughter of a soldier killed in Vietnam before she was born. The story reveals Sam's discovery, through his letters and journals and her own "growing up," of the father she never knew and the war which killed him. Living in Sam's mind allows us to participate in her learning process and forces us to recognize our own difficulties in sorting out Vietnam. She is no soldier and neither are most of us; thus, her move toward insight replicates our own epistemological journey, and her personal connection with the war deepens our emotional response. Mason guides Sam, and us, through the paces logically by filtering all input through Sam's eyes and finally through her heart. When the book ends with Sam's visit to the Vietnam War memorial in Washington, we feel that each step on the road to this climactic encounter has been earned by both Sam and reader.
In the beginning of the story we find Sam living with her uncle Emmett, another Vietnam veteran, whose behavior frightens her because she can't understand the source of his conflicts—the war. One effect she becomes fairly sure of, however, is his poor health: the skin rash, headaches and digestive problems she attributes to his exposure to Agent Orange. We follow her efforts to draw Emmett out on his war experiences and her increasing involvement with his vet friends, all of whom exhibit permanent scars from the war. As she grows closer to Emmett and his friends, her reflections on the world are colored by her knowledge of what happened to these men in Vietnam and what continues to happen to them and their families "back in the world."
Mason collects Sam's conclusions in one short scene when she shows us how Sam's stream of consciousness is continually invaded by the war. The veterans organize a dance to benefit the son of Buddy Mangrum, a child recently hospitalized due to complications arising from his father's contamination by Agent Orange. Sam's thoughts are these as she sits in the darkened gymnasium:
The entwined red and white and blue streamers flowed in the breeze from the air conditioner. Buddy Mangrum's kid's intestines were twisted like that.
Sam's world has been darkened by realizing the impact of the war on soldiers and their families, and because we are close companions of her mind, we share her insights. We have no need for instruction because we have collected the same data due to Mason's narrative strategy.
Sitting and watching the vets at the dance, Sam thinks of a party she decided not to attend and to the present she never bought.
You could work hard wrapping a package and buy some pretty paper and a nice ribbon and a name tag, but the person would just rip it all up to see what was inside. Packaging was supposed to deceive, Sam thought, but it never did.
One kind of packaging reminds her of another sort and she muses, "Her father came back from the war in a plastic bag. Attractive and efficient. A good disguise." The shadows in the gymnasium are unsettling because "in the corners it was dark, like a foxhole where an infantryman would lie crouched for the night, under his poncho, spread above." Sam vividly imagines the nocturnal scramblings of jungle creatures, frequently illuminated by "the tracers beaming across the sky, identifying the crisscross path of a distant firefight. The strobe light was like that. The pain in Emmett's head." She moves from the gym to Vietnam, then back again as she collides with the fallout from that jungle experience: her uncle's psychological scars.
Sam's thoughts are impinged upon by her new knowledge about her father, and the transitions between ideas seem logical, almost organic. The lessons we draw maintain the narrative integrity and avoid the artificial imposition we felt occasionally in Indian Country. Mason's method is a gentler entangling of reader in the narrative web than Heinemann's shocking entrapment of the reader with his ghostly scream. Both books, though, involve us in an intimate exploration of the truth.
We share Sam's awareness of at least one painful truth: the sheer waste of human lives, among those killed in Vietnam and among those who returned. She feels the hurt most deeply due to her desire for Tom, a veteran whose memories prevent him from making love to Sam. His impotence brings home the war to Sam:
The sadness of his affliction hit her then like a truck. She thought of all the lives wasted by the war. She wanted to cry, but then she wanted to yell and scream and kick. She could imagine fighting, but only against the war. All the boys getting killed, on both sides. And boys getting mutilated. And then not being allowed to grow up. That was it—they didn't get to grow up and become regular people.
Sam has aged considerably throughout In Country, and it is our participation in her growing up which renders the cut-off of young lives even more poignant, and at the same time, more tangible. College students identify with Sam and the meaning of Vietnam is brought home to them, with a special urgency, it seems, because Mason's narrative strategy invites them into Sam's consciousness.
In Walking Point: American Narratives of Vietnam, Thomas Myers comments on the importance of this collusion between writer and reader:
… there is in even the most powerful writing something that language cannot reach or explicate, an experience that words point toward but that only the reader's own creative energies can begin to trace.
The aesthetic rendering of experience which Paco's Story and In Country employ makes the most of these "creative energies." Our partnerships with these authors result in concrete connections with the narrative universe of Heinemann and Mason, while Caputo's Indian Country remains, at least for this reader, largely unknown territory.
Jonathan Mirsky (review date 21 September 1995)
SOURCE: "No Trumpets, No Drums," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XLII, No. 14, September 21, 1995, pp. 58-61.
[In the review below, Mirsky remarks on three novels by Vietnamese writers about the Vietnam war.]
Reading these novels makes one raise a long-neglected question: How did the North Vietnamese win the war? If Robert McNamara has read them he must be even more baffled; he says in his recent memoir that he realized almost from the beginning that few Americans, including himself, knew much about the Vietnamese. His critics have condemned him for this, noting how just when the war started the White House and State Department scorned journalists like Bernard Fall and Jean Lacouture, who had come to know the country during the French War, or academic specialists like George Kahin and David Marr, who had studied Vietnamese nationalism. Nor did the military listen to its own experts, like Colonel David Hackworth or John Vann, who had fought the North Vietnamese and warned that unless the Americans adopted the tactics and perhaps the strategy of their enemy they would lose the war.
Dean Rusk admitted he had underestimated what he called the enemy's "tenacity"—they endured the equivalent of ten million American dead, told his son—but he insisted that the cause had been just. North Vietnam's General Giap, in his own writings and in interviews with foreigners, including the American journalist Morley Safer, spoke of his soldiers' enormous sacrifices. Asked if these bothered him, Giap literally brushed the question aside as if he were brushing away a fly. Others on the American side, such as General Westmoreland, continue to insist that all the Americans needed was the will to win and no betrayals back home.
Maybe McNamara was right. The novels under review [Bao Ninh's The Sorrow of War: A Novel of North Vietnam and Duong Thu Huong's Novel Without a Name and Paradise of the Blind] deepen the mystery of how the Vietnamese stuck it out and won. Here is a song North Vietnamese soldiers were singing in 1974, when the war was nearly over, which goes:
Oh, this is war without end, War without end. Tomorrow or today, Today or tomorrow. Tell me my fate, When will I die.
That same year, Bao Ninh, the soldier-author of The Sorrow of War, wrote, "Victory after victory, withdrawal after withdrawal. The path of war seemed endless, desperate and leading nowhere…. the soldiers waited in fear, hoping they would not be ordered in as support forces, to hurl themselves into the arena to almost certain death."
In the late eighteenth century, the official history of the Chinese Emperor Qianlong described the Vietnamese as an "unreliable people," always keen to fight invaders. In 1874, Paulin Vial, a French observer of the colonial war, described bands of Vietnamese appearing as if from nowhere to attack local officials and suddenly disappearing.
Understanding the tenacious character of the Vietnamese remains just as elusive as ever. I became aware of this again this past May when I talked to Hong Kong officials in charge of what they call "the orderly repatriation" of the over 20,000 Vietnamese boat people, of the original 40,000, who are still in the colony's detention camps. The repatriations are anything but orderly. In April 1994 those to be flown back to Hanoi resisted so vigorously that more than 200 of them were gassed or beaten badly enough to require hospital care—the authorities admitted this only after a local newspaper published the extent of the injuries—and ever since it has been usual for the security men and women to carry some of the repatriated Vietnamese kicking and shouting onto the planes. Not long ago when the plane landed in Hanoi the passengers resisted so hard that the Vietnamese authorities nearly refused to accept them.
On May 20 and 21, 1995, well over 2,000 Hong Kong police and Correctional Services officers entered the White-head Detention Centre to move 1,500 Vietnamese, mostly women and children, to another center before flying them to Hanoi. They suddenly found themselves attacked by 6,000 inmates, many from other, supposedly sealed-off sections of the camp, who had cut wires and burrowed under fences and were armed with homemade spears and clubs. They injured over 130 officers. The Vietnamese were subjected to more than 3,000 rounds of gas; the repatriation efforts had to be called off for the night and began again the next morning.
The inmates' resistance was blamed on their knowing that the American Congress was considering legislation to permit more boat people to enter the US. The deputy secretary for security in Hong Kong said the Congress was "raising false hopes." He was asked repeatedly how the Vietnamese had made the weapons or cut the wires or organized their forces in a well-supervised and patrolled camp. He said he didn't know.
I suggested to the deputy secretary that after many years of supervising the Vietnamese and repeated encounters with their resistance, the government seemed to know very little about them. His briefing reminded me, I said, of the Saigon briefings by the Americans during the war, called the "Five o'Clock Follies," in which the briefers confessed incredulity that yet another of their well-planned operations had failed. When I asked him if he or his colleagues had bothered to read anything about the Vietnamese and their surprising capacity to keep resisting and to be what Qianlong's historian had called "unreliable," the deputy secretary told me he had no time for such questions.
We do not get much closer to the answer in these books. Instead what we find is the fear, desperation, disillusion, and comradeship that one often meets among combat soldiers, together with the corruption and hypocrisy among the commanders and officials back home that are equally familiar.
The Sorrow of War is the best-known of the recent novels from Hanoi about the war, and the author, Bao Ninh, has every reason to have written bitterly about it. In 1967 he was one of the five hundred soldiers of the Glorious 27th Youth Brigade, of whom ten survived the war. This is his first novel and he has explained in interviews with foreigners that although the book has sold well in Vietnam, he has had an uneasy relationship with the authorities because of it.
No wonder: much of the book is about the grim experiences of Kien, an infantry officer who in 1975 goes back to the battlefield to find and bury the dead. We also learn about his growing up in Hanoi and then, after the war, his attempts to write a novel about what he has seen. The parts about his difficulties as a writer become tedious, but the rest of the book has considerable imaginative power.
This is particularly striking when we read of Kien's experiences on B3 battlefield in the Central Highlands as his Missing in Action Remains-Gathering Team enters the Jungle of Screaming Souls. Kien had been there before. "It was here at the end of the dry season of 1969, that his 27th Battalion was surrounded and almost totally wiped out. Ten men survived from the Lost Battalion after fierce, horrible, barbarous fighting." The men were sprayed with napalm and clustered together terrified. Some went mad; others were blown to bits or were shot one by one from helicopters. The frantic battalion commander blew his brains out in front of Kien, after yelling, "Better to die than surrender, my brothers! Better to die!"
Western readers will then find themselves in a Vietnamese spirit world that is probably wholly unfamiliar to them. The destroyed battalion, Bao writes, was never mentioned again, "though numerous souls of ghosts and devils were born in that deadly defeat … refusing to depart for the Other World." Sobbing and whispering filled the nights in what came to be called the Jungle of Screaming Souls. The burial group—secretly—built an altar and burned incense. Bitterly, Kien remembers the propaganda of the time: "We won, the enemy lost. The enemy will surely lose. The North had a good harvest, a bumper harvest. The people will rise up and welcome you. Those who don't just lack awareness."
The soldiers were happy only when away from the front, playing cards, talking about sex, and painting mustaches on one another with lampblack. But at any minute a card player could be called away and "burned alive in a T54 tank, his body turned to ash. No grave or tomb for them to throw the cards onto." Desertions were common, "as though soldiers were being vomited out, emptying the insides of whole platoons." The soldiers "had created an almost invincible fighting force because of their peasant nature, by volunteering to sacrifice their lives. They had simple, gentle, ethical outlooks on life … yet they never had a say in deciding the course of the war."
Even the capture of Saigon, a brief moment of exhilaration for Kien, was marked by his comrades with drunkenness, looting, destruction. The victorious troops enjoyed "their greatest prize: sleep."
Then comes an episode that for most American readers will seem both unexpected and familiar. When the soldiers returned to Hanoi after their victory, most of them had been years in the field; the trip home was the happiest moment of their years in the army. But they immediately found.
a common emotion of bitterness. There had been no trumpets for the victorious soldiers, no drums, no music. That might have been tolerated, but not the disrespect shown them. The general population just didn't care about them. Nor did their own authorities.
An army driver harangues Kien. The dead, he said, had died for a corrupt society. "This kind of peace? In this kind of peace it seems people have unmasked themselves and revealed their true, horrible selves. So much blood, so many lives sacrificed—for what?" In addition to the known dead, there are 300,000 North Vietnamese MIAs, in contrast with the famous 2,000 still-missing Americans.
The returned soldiers were exhorted to avoid reconciliation with the South. This we have read before, in the memoirs of former NLF leaders like Truong Nhu Tang, author of Journal of a Vietcong, who described how their part in the war was ignored. The northern soldiers were warned, writes Bao Ninh, "to guard against the idea of the South having fought valiantly or been meritorious in any way." So much for the assurances to antiwar Americans from the North Vietnamese during the war that the Southern struggle was simply being aided by the North, and that a regime based on a southern coalition headed by the Vietcong would take over.
In fact, the only idyllic moment in The Sorrow of War takes place in the South. In the midst of terrible fighting, Kien's unit stumbles into a remote coffee plantation in the Central Highlands, a pretty place with a house on stilts surrounded by flowers. The soldiers are dirty and sweaty, and are offered a meal and coffee by the owner and his wife, Northerners who had come south.
The owner tells them, "We just live a simple life, growing coffee, sugarcane, and flowers…. Thanks to Heaven, thanks to the land and the trees and nature, and thanks to our hands … we are self-sufficient. We don't need help from any government…. You are Communists…. You're human too. You want peace and a calm life, families of your own."
When the soldiers leave, enchanted, one of them who had studied economic planning before the war bursts out, "That's the way to live! What a peaceful, happy oasis. My lecturers with all their Marxist theories will pour in and ruin all this if we win. I'm horrified to think of what will happen to that couple. They'll soon learn what the new political order means."
Duong Thu Huong's Novel Without a Name also begins in a terrible place ridden with spirits: the Gorge of Lost Souls. In both books the soldiers kill and eat an orangutan as if carrying out a rite. In Bao's book, it looks "like a fat woman with ulcerous skin, the eyes, half-white, half-grey, still rolling." In Novel Without a Name the creature is minced into salad and boiled into soup; its hands look like a child's, and taste, or so Duong imagines, like human flesh.
Like Bao Ninh, Duong Thu Huong spent seven years at the front in a Communist Youth Brigade; she is one of three survivors of a unit of forty men and women. Her novels, once popular, are now difficult to obtain in Hanoi. In recent years she has spent months in prison for sending "state secrets" abroad, and has been expelled from the Party.
Her central character is platoon leader Quan, who has been in the field for ten years and spends a brief home leave deep in disillusion. When Quan and his friends went off to war, "drunk on our youth,… marching toward a glorious future," the mothers in his village wept. Vietnam had been chosen by History, the young recruits imagined, and would become humanity's paradise when the war ended. "The deeper we plunged into the war, the more the memory of that first day haunted us. The more we were tortured by the consciousness of appalling indifference … We had renounced everything for glory. It was this guilt that bound us to one another." Ten years later he admits to himself, "I had been defeated from the beginning … I had never really committed myself to war."
It is common in the West to ascribe the stubbornness of the Vietnamese, their ability to just keep coming, to their long history of opposing foreign invaders, beginning with the elephant-riding Truong sisters, who fought the Han armies almost two thousand years ago. This is indeed a long tradition, and some historians note that nationalism was present in Vietnam before it appeared anywhere else. But a cynical comrade of Quan's looks at past heroes differently:
We country folk have gagged ourselves, our stomachs and our mouths, even our penises. But when it comes to the generals, they know how to take advantage of a situation. Wherever they go … they make sure they have plenty of women. In the old days they had concubines; now they call them "mission comrades."… For so long, it's just been misery, suffering, and more suffering. How many have died since the great De Tham, Phan, and Nguyen Thai Hoc—how many lives were sacrificed to gain independence? The colonialists had only just left Vietnamese soil and these little yellow despots already had a foothold.
In Hanoi on leave, Quan listens to two members of the official elite chatting on a train. One, a highly placed intellectual, describes real power: "All you need to do is mount a podium perched above a sea of rippling banners. Bayonets sparkling around you. Cannons booming. Now that's the ultimate gratification: the gratification of power. Money. Love."
His companion is shocked at this cynicism. The intellectual goes on: "'We demolished the temples and emptied the pagodas so we could hang up portraits of Marx, enthrone a new divinity for the masses…. But just for a laugh, do you know what kind of a man Karl Marx was in real life? Well, he was a debauched little dwarf….' The two men doubled over laughing."
Confronted by a military officer who accuses them of defaming Marx, they show him their identity cards and send him away. The intellectual winks at his companion: "Well? Did you see that? A nation of imbeciles. They need a religion to guide them and a whip to educate them."
In Duong Thu Huong's novel we find hints of how the experienced North Vietnamese soldiers, whose time in the field—until they were killed—greatly exceeded their enemy's, managed to win. Quan remembers that in the jungle, as the opposing forces crept near each other, "We found one another by smell … we opened fire like madmen … toward the place where the wind carried a foreign scent, the smell of the enemy." Equally revealing are the stories of fatal errors. The previous year a North Vietnamese unit had been detected "because instead of pissing into the bushes one guy had done it into a wildflower that camouflaged an American sensor." In his book on soldiering, About Face: The Odyssey of an American Warrior, Colonel David H. Hackworth writes that he ordered his soldiers in Vietnam not to smoke or to use after-shave, thus preventing telltale smells from giving the enemy an advantage. But Quan also speaks more than once of "equilibrium in extermination … the supreme art of war. One of ours for seven of theirs." This is puzzling when we consider who actually lost more men. After a particularly bloody engagement, when his unit took heavy losses, Quan says, "We knew from experience that we had to redress the balance … Annihilation had to be evenly distributed. This insane thirst had taken hold of everyone without exception."
Duong Thu Huong's most famous novel, Paradise of the Blind, was published in Hanoi in 1988. Set in the Soviet Union and Vietnam in the Eighties, its central character, Hang, is a "guest worker" in a Russian factory, where she works to support her mother, a Hanoi street peddler, who has sacrificed her health and most of her money to advance her brother's career. He is now a corrupt bureaucrat. The author has said in interviews that the man is modeled on a well-known official, and she hopes he has read her book.
Although Ms. Duong describes herself as a writer of the second rank, hers is the best Vietnamese novel I've read, mainly because of its portrait of the heroine's Aunt Tam. Just as Hang's mother adores her brother simply because he is the family's last male, Aunt Tam worships her niece because she carries her dead father's blood. When they first meet, "Her wizened face, which ordinarily must have been quite severe, was ecstatic, reverent. 'She's a drop of his blood. My niece,' she murmured."
Both Hang's mother and her aunt show their reverence for their male relatives with food, which is meticulously described. Aunt Tam makes little Hang a meal. "It was a feast worthy of a Tet banquet: steamed chicken, fried chicken, pork pâté, cinnamon pâté, spring rolls seasoned with rice powder, spicy cold salads, asparagus, vermicelli, and sautéed side dishes."
Hang stares at her aunt's feet. "Horrible deep, ugly furrows separated the soles of her feet into flaky layers…. At the same time, they were dainty feet, thin and elegant. Rich now, she could afford to wear imported plastic sandals from Thailand, a luxury in this village. Still, they could never hide her past."
Aunt Tam is immensely strong. She "carried two mahogany stools. I saw the muscles and veins in her arms ripple. But she walked down the steps slowly, gingerly; the feet of the two stools didn't even brush the ground until she placed them in the center of the courtyard. Few men could have matched her strength."
The mother and the aunt had been victims of the Communist land reform in the late Fifties, which had "ripped through the village like a squall, devastating fields and rice paddies, sowing only chaos and misery in its wake." For the victims, "All it took was one malicious remark to push them over the edge, to catapult them from the ranks of the innocent spectators into the pit of the accused. They knew that they were being stalked, that at any moment they could meet with humiliation, sorrow, even death." The villagers whom the Party, in this case represented by Hang's corrupt uncle, select to carry out this appalling campaign—which was eventually repudiated—are drawn from among the most debased and selfish local people. All they care about is getting ahead. The uncle warns Hang's mother: "If you continue to mix with these landowners, they will denounce me to my superiors. My authority and my honor will be ruined."
Hang watches everything closely, not just her aunt's feet and muscles. She describes how the villagers plunge their hands into the paddy mud to test its temperature; one crack of thunder and they know they have to rush to shore up the dikes. "Devotion like this is impossible to explain. No matter, for it was this love that assured the survival of an entire way of life." But she knows how difficult and hopeless the peasant's world can seem. "Everywhere, an indescribable backwardness hung in the air, immaterial yet terrifyingly present: It would be like this for eternity … cold, stubborn, a sluggish, liquid sweetness escaping all control, ready at any moment to drown those unable to rise to its surface."
And always, as in The Sorrow of War and Novel Without a Name, we are told of the corruption of the Party. Hang's shameless uncle comes to Moscow on an official junket, which he uses for stockpiling goods to sell when he returns to Hanoi. A Vietnamese student condemns the uncle: "Where does it come from, your need to humiliate us. In the name of what?… You say our dances are decadent. But haven't you done some dancing yourself? Invisible dances, infinitely more decadent…. It's the dance of the overlords…." He explains such petty officials to Hang: "Little Sister, you must understand, even if it hurts. Your uncle is like a lot of people I've known…. They are their own tragedy. Ours, as well."
The officials in Hong Kong who claim the boat people in the local camps are simply "economic migrants" who must be forcibly returned to Vietnam should read Duong Thu Huong's Paradise of the Blind, which describes life only a few years ago. The author has been banned and imprisoned for writing of her own sadness. In Paradise of the Blind, Hang says, "I saw my village, this cesspool of ambition, all the laughter and tears that had drowned in these bamboo groves." She recalls a woman whose house was seized by a greedy local official and who then hacked him to death and hanged herself. "In the middle of a blazing inferno, I saw it again: the vision of a woman twisting from the end of a rope."
The war has long since ended. It is time, Hang decides, to take leave of it and much else in Vietnam, if only in fantasy. "I can't squander my life tending these faded flowers, these shadows, the legacy of past crimes…. I sat down … and dreamed of different worlds, of the cool shade of a university auditorium, of a distant port where a plane could land and take off…."
The "tenacity" of the Vietnamese is to be found not only in stories of war but in Duong Thu Huong's persistence, under threat of prison, in writing as she does here. Perhaps it is through the work of writers and poets that we will best understand the qualities of the Vietnamese. The feelings Duong describes are close to those of the North Vietnamese soldier who wrote the following poem [published in Poems from Captured Documents, edited and translated by Thanh T. Nguyen and Bruce Weigl, 1994], which was found by the American army in 1967. It seems likely that the man had been either killed, wounded, or captured.
Today, first day of the year I write to celebrate the Spring I'm already weary of. In the New Year I may have luck But much unhappiness as well. I have no choice but to live this new year. Older but still trapped in this life. I'm tired of you, new year, and you, spring.